The film opens with a plaintive voice coming over talk-show radio.
It’s Karen, phoning from inside the immigrant family detention center in Berks County, where she and her young son have been held for more than a year.
She’s worried about him, that his life has become traumatic. They were first detained at the Mexican border by federal authorities, then sent to Pennsylvania for what she thought would be a quick release to local family members.
Later in the film, it’s revealed that by the time they left the Berks center — deported to El Salvador in 2017, their asylum claim denied — she and her son had spent 651 days in custody. And the boy, then about 7, had twice tried to kill himself, using a plastic identification card to dig at his wrists.
“You can’t really get over something like that,” she says.
Karen is one of Las Madres de Berks, four undocumented immigrant mothers whose lives inside and outside the Berks center form the heart of an impassioned new documentary by Philadelphia artist and activist Michelle Angela Ortiz.
“I see them as heroines,” Ortiz said in an interview. “As mothers, sometimes our work goes unnoticed, and our sacrifices are not as valued.”
Ortiz, 40, is a painter and muralist, known for “Familias Separadas,” her series of public artworks centered on Pennsylvania families affected by detention and deportation. Her canvases are big spaces, like the Capitol steps in Harrisburg and the front gate at City Hall in Philadelphia.
She has much in common with the people in her documentary.
Ortiz is mother to a 4-year-old son. She’s the second of three children born to a mother from Colombia and a father from Puerto Rico.
Neither parent made it as far as high school back home. They came to the U.S. mainland separately some 50 years ago, met and married, their passage to a better life taking form in a home near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia.
When Ortiz was growing up, her mother worked as a cook for a prominent Italian family, and her father cleaned floors and offices in Center City. The scraps of paper he collected at work became Ortiz’s first sketchbooks.
Now, in partnership with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, an advocacy group, she has turned to film to offer a new chapter in an immigration story that continues to trouble the American conscience.
Leaving home in El Salvador, says one mother, Sofia, “was something we never imagined we’d do.”
But as violence worsened — driven by poverty and gang warfare — her young son pleaded: “Let’s go, Mama. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you or me.”
The four women are identified only by pseudonyms and shown in shadow. None is still jailed at Berks. None has fully recovered from the experience.
As Ortiz interviewed the women, she wondered: “What would I do for my child if I was faced with the same conditions?” She hopes people who see the film will ask themselves the same question.
The narrative of the United States’ internecine war over immigration has focused on events at the southern border, in communities in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. But Las Madres shows how the furor reaches into Northern states like Pennsylvania and even tiny towns like Leesport, population 1,891, set 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
What’s formally known as the Berks County Residential Center — vilified by critics as a “baby jail” — opened in 2001, the oldest and smallest of three federal lockups that hold undocumented immigrant parents and their children. The two other centers are in Texas.
The redbrick facility is run by Berks County under an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a police arm of the Department of Homeland Security. The families have not been charged with crimes but are detained to make sure they show up for immigration hearings.
Most came to the United States seeking asylum, escaping dangerous conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Nearly 10 percent of the 30 million residents of those “Northern Triangle” countries have left their homes, most of them trying to reach the United States, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some children and parents spent nearly two years in the low-security lockup, awaiting court hearings and rulings.
The center’s population has fluctuated dramatically. At one point, 80 of 96 beds were filled.
As President Donald Trump cracked down on border-crossers, immigration advocates braced for an influx of new families — who never arrived. Instead, the administration has left about 2,000 beds unused at the three detention centers.
“The sheer volume of family units crossing the border has overwhelmed ICE’s limited transportation resources,” ICE said in a statement.
Today, the Berks center is mostly empty, its population down to four people in April and about 12 this month.
“This is the lowest it’s ever been,” said Jasmine Rivera, a leader in the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which wants the center closed and turned into a residential drug-treatment facility.
She and other activists have targeted the Berks center for vigils and protests, asserting that the people inside have been mistreated and that, as health experts point out, incarceration is physically and psychologically harmful to children.
“It’s as if they don’t have children of their own,” says a mother in the film.
ICE and Berks officials maintain that the center is safe and well-run, a humane means of keeping families intact amid their immigration proceedings.
How do the mothers’ stories end? One was deported. One is dead, fleeing violence in her homeland only to find it in her home in this country, stabbed to death last year at age 25 in a family dispute.
Two have been released and live freely, fulfilling mandatory check-ins with ICE as their legal cases go forward.
“It’s a mark, a trauma that we will always carry with us,” one says. “But thank God, we were able to leave this center.”
Upcoming free screenings:
Thursday, May 9, 5:30 p.m.
Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, 2100 Arch St., 4th Floor, Philadelphia.
Saturday, June 1, 2:15 p.m.
Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, Terra Hall, University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Monday, June 3, 7 p.m.
South Philly Barbacoa, 1140 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia.