Legal advocates say that since November, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been expediting the deportation of Salvadoran families from the Berks family detention center in Pennsylvania, with plans to expel three more families this Friday morning.
The speeding up of deportations appears to stem from the more aggressive approach of the Trump administration, say advocates.
ICE is accelerating the process by expelling families on non-commercial flights before they are granted travel documents by the Salvadoran embassy, in a break from prior practice, say advocates. Berks is one of three remaining family detention centers that incarcerate immigrant mothers with their children—prison-like facilities that became a mainstay of former President Barack Obama’s response to mass, violent displacement from Central American countries.
Prior to the change, families were granted provisional travel documents and deported on commercial flights. By cutting out the role of the the Salvadoran embassy in granting such papers, expulsions now move more quickly.
“This is a way of circumventing their legal rights,” said Bridget Cambria, an immigration attorney who represents a 19-year-old woman slated for deportation tomorrow with her three-year-old daughter (their names are being withheld to protect their privacy). “What they are doing now is, rather than allowing them to fight their cases, ICE is taking on an adversarial role, putting families on private charter planes to places where there is belief they will be facing harm.”
The young woman and her child have already been detained for nearly a year and held at all three family detention centers. Cambria says that if deported Friday morning, her client’s safety and well-being will be at risk.
“This young person is an abandoned child, who has been alone since she was three years old,” said Cambria. “This is an extreme way to get rid of a mother and child who face severe violence if deported. The type of violence she is fleeing is gender- and sexual-based violence in her country, similar to others fleeing El Salvador.”
In a declaration filed to the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in November 2016, and viewed by AlterNet, the young woman stated: “I came to this country seeking protection due to threats by MS-13, a transnational criminal organization that threatens the lives on a daily basis of ordinary Salvadorans. I had the misfortune of learning about their criminal dealings, and since then, I have faced threats that made it impossible for me to live in peace. I feared my daughter and I would be hurt any second, so I fled.”
According to Cambria, the woman faces deportation even though she has been “afforded protection by a family court in New York, which determined that she was abandoned, and it is not in her best interest to be deported.” She also has a pending visa application, said Cambria.
While harsh policies toward refugees from Central America are not new, Cambria believes the current climate under Trump is behind the policy shift. “This began under the Obama administration and gave Trump permission to heighten the crackdown,” said Cambria. “Now that Trump is president, we can see the power Obama gave to the administration, and the administration is running with it.”
This shift in policy was first noticed by legal advocates in November.
According to Karen Hoffmann, a legal advocate on the ground at Berks with ALDEA, the People’s Justice Center, “The first Salvadoran family to be taken this way was [a mother] and her severely traumatized and suicidal seven-year-old son. They were transferred from Berks to Texas, because the consulate in New York wouldn’t issue travel documents, on November 3 and then removed on November 8, still without travel documents.”
On February 3, two more Salvadoran families were deported, says Hoffmann, even though each of them had pending complaints with the Asylum Office and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Neither the Asylum Office nor the Office of CRCL had issued a response to either before they were taken from their beds around 3 am,” said Hoffmann. “This is highly unusual. In the past, we had always received at least a perfunctory denial before families were deported. Now it seems they are not even doing that.”
Court documents issued Thursday by the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania state: “Plaintiff and her mother are scheduled to be removed from the United States to El Salvador on Friday, February 17, 2017.” The document, viewed by AlterNet, continues: “The removal will take place via an ICE air charter flight that will originate in Alexandria, Louisiana, and then stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before proceeding directly to El Salvador.”
Legal advocates are still holding out hope that tomorrow’s deportations can be stopped. “I think it is important to raise awareness of what ICE is doing to both Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s Office and with Senator Bob Casey,” said Jacquelyn Kline, an attorney who has been supporting people incarcerated at Berks. “We are also asking people to call the Philadelphia Field Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ask them to stop the removal.”
ICE and the acting consul of the Salvadoran consulate in New York did not immediately return requests for comment.
Update, 4:55 PM EST:
Legal advocates received word Thursday afternoon that the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is staying the deportation of the 19-year-old woman and her child, pending a decision on other litigation, including the effort to secure her special immigrant juvenile status. The deportation of the two other families, however, is expected to move forward.
“It’s hard to put into words how you feel when a person you’ve been fighting hard for and is facing imminent deportation, and not for the first time, has that deportation stayed,” said Kline. “Going back means certain death. To have that stopped for this period of time, it’s a great feeling for us but even more so knowing that she is going to be safe a little longer.”
Legal advocates do not believe the two other families facing deportation tomorrow will have their expulsions stayed.
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