A couple from England who were visiting Canada and took a wrong turn into the United States after swerving to avoid an animal on the road have been detained with their 3-month-old baby and shipped to the Berks Detention Center in Leesport, Pa., according to their lawyers.
The baby boy has been subjected to frigid and filthy conditions, developing blotchy skin and what seems to be an eye infection, his mother wrote in a sworn statement. At one point, the child was left naked and exposed in the cold jail, after all his clothes and blankets were taken away for washing, she said.
The couple, David Connors, 30, and Eileen Connors, 24, say they were denied the right to contact their embassy.
“We will be traumatized for the rest of our lives by what the United States government has done to us,” Connors wrote in her statement.
Lawyer Bridget Cambria, of Aldea – the People’s Justice Center, filed a complaint on behalf of the family with the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the nation’s immigration agencies.
“They had no idea they had crossed any boundary,” Cambria said from the detention center during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “They had no idea they were even in the United States. They were just trying to get back to their hotel.”
Cambria had no information on the charges against them. On Tuesday she said the family had been told they would be deported “sometime” in the future.
She described a bizarre scene of a family vacation turning into a nightmare. Other family members, including 2-year-old twins, were also taken into custody and moved to Berks, where they remain, Cambria said.
She did not know what kind of animal was in the road.
Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that claims of inhumane conditions at Berks are “unequivocally false.” The agency works to ensure the safe and appropriate treatment of all those in custody, they said.
Federal Customs and Border Protection officials did not respond to inquiries about the case on Monday, when many federal workers were off, or on Tuesday.
A British Foreign Office spokesperson said on Tuesday: “We are providing assistance to a British family after they were taken into custody in the U.S.A. and are in close contact with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
The Berks County lockup — long vilified by critics as a “baby jail” that should be closed — was designed to hold parents and their children who came into the United States without papers. Formally known as the Berks County Residential Center, the low-security facility opened in 2001, located about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
In her statement, Connors said that on Oct. 3, her family was visiting Vancouver, never intending to enter the U.S. Her husband’s cousin, Michael Connors, was driving close to the border, and when an animal suddenly appeared in the lane, Michael Connors turned onto an unmarked road to avoid a collision.
In moments, multiple police cars and Border Patrol agents appeared.
David and Michael Connors were immediately arrested, she said, despite their protestations of innocence.
“You crossed an international border,” the officer told them, she said.
The first night in custody, at a facility near the Canadian border, David was taken to a male-only cell while she and the baby were placed in a women’s cell. Both were given thin, metallic-looking Mylar emergency blankets and left to sleep on the floor, she wrote.
She put the baby on top of her, to try to keep him warm, but he kept sliding off. “The memory of our little baby having to sleep on a dirty floor of a cell will haunt us forever,” Eileen Connors wrote.
The next morning, the couple were told they would be released to a family member in the United States. They insisted they simply wanted to go home.
Later that day, immigration officials told them the plans had changed. They would not be released to family. That night, Connors wrote, immigration agents took the family from their cells, put them in a van and drove — “like an abduction or kidnapping.”
They were taken to a detention center, where her husband was led from the van to what he later described as a freezing cell. “He felt like he was really losing his mind at this point from the extreme cold,” she wrote.
She and the baby, Connors wrote, were taken to a hotel, a Red Roof Inn in Seattle. She had to rely on the room microwave when she wanted to boil water to prepare clean drinking water for her baby and to sterilize his bottles.
The next day, the family was taken to the Seattle airport.
“I thought, finally we’re going home,” Connors wrote.
Instead, she wrote, the family was flown to Pennsylvania. They arrived at the Berks center on Oct. 5.
“They were in disbelief they were being treated this way,” said Karen Hoffmann, a Philadelphia lawyer who works with Aldea.
The family’s account is similar to that of a French jogger who last year accidentally crossed the Canadian border into the United States — and was quickly arrested by federal immigration authorities, who detained her for two weeks.
Cedella Roman, 19, was visiting her mother in Canada when she went for a run south of White Rock, British Columbia, according to CBC and CNN. She mistakenly jogged into Blaine, Wash., and was arrested by Border Patrol officers when she stopped to take a photo of the picturesque view.
“He stopped me and started telling me I had crossed the border illegally,” she told the CBC. “I told him I really hadn't done it on purpose, and didn’t understand what was happening to me.”
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell told the CBC at the time that if someone enters the country without inspection, “they have illegally entered the United States and will be processed accordingly.”
“It is the responsibility of an individual traveling in the vicinity of an international border to maintain awareness of their surroundings and their location at all times to ensure they do not illegally cross the border,” she said then.
The Berks detention center is one of three facilities in the country that hold migrant families — the two others are in Texas — with a combined capacity of about 3,100 people. It has for years been the target of activist groups like the Shut Down Berks Coalition, who say it does terrible harm to children and families.
At one point, Berks held mostly mothers and children, who filled 80 or more of its 96 beds. Last year, the center was home to about 20 families, all fathers and children, all of whom fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and all of whom were seeking asylum. The center’s current population could not be determined on Monday.
Connors wrote that after she arrived there, all the baby’s clothes and blankets were taken for washing, even new items, and the center had no clothes small enough to fit him. At one point, she tried to wash her child as best she could while sitting on a sofa because the baby bathtub that was offered was filthy, she wrote.
The bathrooms are dirty and broken, she said.
“When I ask how am I supposed to keep my baby warm in this horrible cold, all they tell me is to put a hat on him. … They even took away one of his formula containers, which I had to beg for three days for them to return it to me.”
The blankets and sheets she was given smelled “like a dead dog,” Connors wrote, and she didn’t use them to wrap her first-born child “for fear they haven’t been washed and my baby will become sick.”
At night, every 15 minutes, a staff person opened the door to shine a flashlight into their room, awakening her and the baby, she said. She startles when the checks occur, because “I feel like someone is going to take my baby.”
An ICE officer told her that if the couple wished, they could allow the baby to be separated from his parents and taken alone to another facility, Connors said. She refused.
“We have been treated like criminals here, stripped of our rights, and lied to,” Connors wrote. “We have been traumatized. … This would never happen in the United Kingdom to U.S. citizens, or anyone else, because people there are treated with dignity.”