Inside the Berks County family detention center last month, a 17-year-old Mexican boy turned 18, but he didn’t get cake or presents for his birthday.

He got handcuffs. And an hour-long ride to the York County Prison, which confines adult migrants awaiting immigration hearings.

His mother and father were transferred, too, the family’s attorneys said. In the eyes of the federal government, once their son was taken away, no family unit existed, and the couple had no basis to stay at Berks. At York, the father and son were jailed with the men, the mother among the women, neither gender allowed to contact the other.

The situation wasn’t unique. At least 1,000 times between April 2016 and February 2018, a migrant minor held in the United States endured an 18th-birthday transfer to a tougher, adult jail, often to be deported.

Attorneys for the youth say it’s another way in which the Trump administration is separating families — not 2,000 miles away at the southern border, but in the heart of Pennsylvania. They say these types of transfers and housing decisions make it harder for families to pursue legal asylum claims, and contradict government assertions that places like Berks serve to keep undocumented families together.

“ICE does not have to take this family and split them up and put them in an adult jail,” said their lawyer, Bridget Cambria, of ALDEA — The People’s Justice Center. “They have absolute discretion. … They easily could have made an exception for this young man.”

Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Khaalid Walls said: “There are no unusual circumstances in this case. The facility operates in order to keep parents together with minor children while they proceed through the immigration process. The facility does not accommodate families without minor children.”

Protesters gathered outside of the Center City office of ICE last year, calling for the closure of the family detention center in Berks County and the abolition of the immigration enforcement agency.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Protesters gathered outside of the Center City office of ICE last year, calling for the closure of the family detention center in Berks County and the abolition of the immigration enforcement agency.

Cambria and fellow ALDEA lawyer Alyssa Kane declined to name the family, saying the three face deportation Monday. Publicizing their identity could announce their return to the violent Mexican drug cartel that caused them to flee.

“This is part and parcel of the increasing use of detention as a bludgeon against asylum-seekers and their families,” said lawyer Brennan Gian-Grasso, past chair of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The transfer of kids when they turn 18, while it existed in the past, happened a lot less because the government was willing to release people on parole.”

Critics have long assailed the 96-bed Berks facility — formally the Berks County Residential Center, run by the county through a contract with ICE — as a “baby jail” that must be closed.

In recent months, Berks has come under increasing scrutiny as Democratic presidential contenders decry family separation. County officials and the governor’s office have discussed possible new uses for the facility, such as a drug-treatment center, if it were to be closed as housing for migrants.

Transfer issues at Berks mirror questions surrounding the treatment of “unaccompanied minors” who have been held in federally funded shelters after crossing the border alone. Birthday transfers to adult detention facilities occurred in two-thirds of 1,531 cases from April 2016 to February 2018, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.

That resonates in the Philadelphia area, where at least three agencies aim to open shelters for those minors — and reap millions of dollars in government contracts. Bethany Christian Services, for instance, plans to start a Bensalem facility for a dozen boys aged 15 to 17, meaning some youths could be close to 18 as soon as they arrive.

ICE has said it follows the law, treating every child who ages out of the shelter system on an individual basis, and evaluating whether the youth is a flight risk or a danger to himself or the community.

The Mexican father and mother owned a village farm in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, their lives spent in the fields. That life vanished when a cartel demanded their land and threatened their son.

The three headed northwest to Tijuana. They didn’t try to sneak into the United States. Instead, in August, father, mother, and son presented themselves to border authorities at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego. They hoped to reunite with an older son and daughter-in-law in Kansas City, Kan.

Federal law says migrants who arrive in the United States, or who are already present, can apply for asylum. Those individuals must show they’ve been persecuted, or are legitimately afraid they’ll be persecuted if sent back, because of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a certain group.

The Trump administration has restricted access to asylum, the president denouncing the system as a “scam.” Now the administration wants to deny work permits to asylum-seekers who cross the border without permission, meaning families would have no means to legally support themselves while their cases go forward.

Ultimately about 20% of claims are approved. The rate of refusal has grown in each of the last six years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

“Illegal aliens are gaming our asylum system for economic opportunity, which undermines the integrity of our immigration system and delays relief for legitimate asylum-seekers,” said acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli.

Trump officials instituted a border policy called “metering,” which sets a daily limit on the number of people who can request asylum at a port of entry. Asylum-seekers are told to put their names on a list and go back to Mexico, where they may wait weeks or months.

In September, volunteers in Tijuana, Mexico, call names from a waiting list of those seeking to apply for asylum at a border crossing in San Diego. The Trump administration has proposed to make it hard for asylum-seekers to obtain permission to work in the United States while their immigration cases are pending.
Elliot Spagat / AP
In September, volunteers in Tijuana, Mexico, call names from a waiting list of those seeking to apply for asylum at a border crossing in San Diego. The Trump administration has proposed to make it hard for asylum-seekers to obtain permission to work in the United States while their immigration cases are pending.

In this case, the family stayed in Mexico about two months before being allowed to seek asylum in October. At the border they underwent a basic “credible fear” screening to see if they were afraid of going home. They passed, and were sent to Berks.

There they underwent a full, more rigorous interview. The asylum officer ruled that the family did not show a significant possibility that they would succeed in immigration court.

The family’s attorneys asked an immigration judge to review that decision. On Oct. 25, after the request was made but before the actual review, the boy turned 18, and the family was transferred to York and separated.

A judge at York reviewed and denied the claim. A subsequent petition for reconsideration also was rejected. Now on the cusp of deportation, the family has few options in Mexico.

They can’t return to their village, Kane said, because “there’s a decent chance they could be killed.” They could try to live elsewhere in Mexico. Or seek haven in another county. In the future, they could again request protection in America, though the burden of proof would be much higher and harder to meet.

“All that matters [to the government] is enforcement,” Cambria said. “It doesn’t matter what happens to this child.”