Maddie likes to draw crayon portraits of blue-and-green globes on which she, her parents, and her new baby brother stand smiling and free.
It’s uncertain if the 6-year-old’s dream will come true.
As of Wednesday, she’s been confined with her dad in the Berks County immigrant detention center for 175 days, almost six months. Her lawyers say that’s the longest the federal government has held a child in any of its three family lock-ups.
They say a sweet, shy girl once defined by a sparkling smile has become deeply depressed.
“The number-one priority should be her wellness, and it’s not," said lawyer Bridget Cambria of ALDEA-The People’s Justice Center, which represents the family. "Who do you go to, and where do you reach out, when the government doesn’t care about a young girl from Guatemala?”
Cambria and other supporters are taking their advocacy beyond the courts, starting a #FREEMADDIE campaign on social media, sending out news about the case, gathering names on a petition, and imploring Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to try to intervene.
Backing for Maddie has come from Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who said he has never known a 6-year-old to be a threat to national security, and also from a galaxy far, far away: Star Wars’ Mark Hamill called Maddie’s detention “outrageous and tragic” on Twitter, adding, “#ShameOnUs.”
ICE officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation around the matter.
What’s formally called the Berks County Residential Center is a 96-bed facility about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Leesport, operated by the county through a contract with ICE.
Critics have assailed Berks as a “baby jail” which in October held enough children to fill a day-care center, including two 1-year-olds, two 2-year-olds, two 3-year-olds, a 4-year-old and two 6-year-olds.
The government has the discretion to release Maddie and her father. If that happened, they would likely be placed under supervision, which can include ankle-bracelet monitoring devices and weekly face-to-face meetings with ICE. They would still go through the same court process.
Both are seeking asylum, a legal means to stay in the United States, while also pursuing a separate federal lawsuit.
Maddie’s attorneys would not provide her surname, or name her father, saying that could place them in danger if they are deported.
The girl’s mother lives in New Jersey with the new baby. In the immigration-enforcement system, it’s not uncommon for one parent to be confined at Berks with children, while the other parent lives freely with the siblings.
“They’re unwilling to release her,” said Amy Maldonado, a Michigan lawyer who also represents Maddie.
Maldonado and others say her months in custody far exceed the maximum 20 days prescribed in a governing federal legal settlement that the Trump administration is trying to end.
Asked about Maddie’s case, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said the governor “supports asylum-seekers being housed in community-based settings rather than being detained at places like [Berks] or other facilities in Texas,” and has offered options for the property that could allow Berks County to end its contract.
The Wolf administration’s attempt to revoke the facility’s license as a child residential- and day-treatment center has been under court appeal since the state Department of Human Services issued a notice of non-renewal in January 2016. The facility is legally able to operate during that appeal, according to DHS.
Maddie’s bid to stay in the United States began the same way as thousands of others.
In early April, she and her father fled from a Guatemala City “Red Zone,” neighborhoods plagued by exceptionally high crime rates, poverty, drug activity, and gang violence.
On April 23, they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tecate, California. They didn’t run. They walked up to a Border Patrol officer and told him they needed asylum.
After a week in custody, U.S. Customs and Border Protection placed the father and daughter in the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” known as MPP, and sent them to Mexico to await their Immigration Court hearing.
Immigrant advocates say the protocols have been anything but protective. Migrants generally are returned to Mexico broke and homeless, and many have been kidnapped, tortured, robbed, or raped.
Maddie and her father were chased and threatened, their lawyers said, and survived mostly because a woman took pity and allowed them to live in her home.
On June 25, father and daughter were permitted into the U.S. solely for their Immigration Court hearing. With no attorney present, the case going against them and asylum unlikely, the father testified he was terrified that Maddie would be hurt or killed in Mexico. He said he would forgo any appeal if it meant his daughter would not be sent there.
Both were ordered deported, then transferred to Berks to await their removal.
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That’s when Cambria became their attorney. She appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, or BIA.
But on July 23, before a ruling on their appeal, ICE officers seized Maddie and her father, intending to send them from Berks to California, from where they would be deported to Mexico.
The father, hysterical, managed to phone Cambria and tell her what was happening before he and Maddie were put on a plane.
With her clients airborne, Cambria won an emergency stay of removal from the BIA. She also filed a separate, federal lawsuit challenging whether a child who has already been detained by the government can legally be placed in MPP or relocated away from her attorney.
The government agreed to return Maddie and her father from San Diego to Berks for adjudication of their federal claims.
On Dec. 4, the BIA did something unusual. It ruled the father was so frightened his child could be hurt in Mexico that it clouded his judgement. His decision to forgo any appeal was not “knowing and intelligent,” as required by immigration law.
The BIA ordered the case sent back to the immigration judge for further proceedings.
In the meantime, Maddie’s seventh birthday is approaching, on Jan. 17.
Maddie loves dogs and rabbits, and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Sometimes, her attorneys said, she sits against a wall in the detention center and weeps. Other times, she dreams of being released to eat a giant pizza, with pineapple on top.
“She asks her father every day or so to mention her mother’s name,” Cambria said, “so she doesn’t forget it.”