Six-year-old Maddie asks a judge to free her and her father after 195 days at the Berks immigrant detention center
Federal immigration authorities have offered to release young Maddie to her mother in New Jersey, ending the confinement of a 6-year-old Guatemalan girl held at the Berks County detention center for a record 195 days. But they won’t free her father.
For now, Maddie isn’t going anywhere.
Two days of contentious legal arguments concluded Tuesday evening with no ruling on whether the 6-year-old Guatemalan girl, who has spent a record 195 days in the Berks County immigrant detention center, could soon leave with her father.
U.S. District Judge Joshua Wolson said he would rule as quickly as possible.
The fate of the girl, known by a first name, and her father, identified in court only as Mr. H., is being decided amid a broad public debate over the nation’s treatment of migrant children, and as advocates raise new calls and legal claims to try to close the Pennsylvania detention center.
The hearing featured testimony from a mental-health authority who said Maddie has become deeply depressed — and from the attending mental-health provider at Berks, who said the girl is fine.
Where the plaintiff’s witness saw a child so distressed that she’s become disheveled, the government’s authority saw a girl whose hair may have been mussed by the hood of her unicorn costume.
Federal immigration authorities have offered to immediately release Maddie to her mother in New Jersey. But they won’t free her father, which the family’s lawyers said makes the overture merely a different form of family separation, one sure to inflict more harm on a suffering child.
“You never heard testimony that separating her from her father would be in her best interest,” lawyer Caroline Heller said in closing. “She needs to be released from custody as soon as possible, with her father. ... We’re dealing with the mental health and safety of a little girl.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Finkelstein said the federal courtroom was sounding a bit like Family Court, with a judge asked to decide if a child should be placed with one parent or the other.
Maddie’s lawyers want the court to release the family — but that decision rests with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and in the appeals available under the Immigration Court system, Finkelstein said. The federal court should not intervene in the detention processes and decisions of the executive-branch agency charged with making them, she said.
The girl’s detention has been condemned and criticized by figures including Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and the actor Mark Hamill, who called Maddie’s imprisonment “outrageous and tragic” on Twitter. More than 1,400 have signed a petition on her behalf.
Maddie’s lawyers said that never in hundreds of cases has a child been freed from Berks without the accompanying parent. They characterized the offer to free Maddie alone as retaliation for the family’s having filed a federal legal claim along with their immigration case.
The lawyers petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, which typically compels a warden or jailer to deliver an imprisoned person to court and to show valid reasons for that person’s detention.
» READ MORE: Girl's detention sparks 'Free Maddie' rallying cry
Finkelstein countered that the government is ready to free Maddie, an offer backed by a new Immigration Court decision that the girl could be discharged on her own recognizance. Finkelstein reiterated on Tuesday: “If the mother will take custody of her, she will be released."
Though the mother is at risk of deportation, she has not been placed in removal proceedings, Finkelstein said. The mother, unidentified in court, recently gave birth to a son, having overstayed a visitor’s visa that allowed her to be in the United States.
What’s formally called the Berks County Residential Center is a 96-bed lockup 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.
Maddie has been confined longer than any child currently held in any of the nation’s three family detention centers, her attorneys said.
She and her father crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tecate, Calif., on April 23, fleeing earlier that month from a Guatemala City “Red Zone,” a term used for neighborhoods plagued by exceptionally high crime rates, poverty, drug activity, and gang violence.
Her father has been her champion and protector through challenge and danger: On the trek from Guatemala, during a U.S.-government-forced return to Mexico, amid a failed ICE deportation attempt, and now through six months of custody at Berks.
Legal documents in the case remain under seal. Both are seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States but one the Trump administration has made harder to achieve.
If freed from Berks, the father would likely be placed under supervision that could include an ankle-bracelet monitoring device. He and Maddie would still go through the same immigration court process.
Maddie’s demeanor has changed dramatically for the worse since August, according to Sarah Megan Berthold, a trauma and torture specialist at the University of Connecticut, who interviewed the girl as recently as last week.
She described Maddie as reluctant to bathe and eat, and monosyllabic, so depressed that it can be difficult for her father to rouse her from bed. At times, Berthold testified, Maddie stares fixedly into space, unresponsive to her father calling her name or waving his hand before her eyes.
When he finally gets her attention, Maddie jerks to consciousness, coughing and gasping.
Since their first interview five months ago, “her mental condition has really deteriorated,” Berthold said.
She said Maddie suffers from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, although thoughts of killing herself seem to have passed.
But Michael Mosko, the attending mental-health provider at Berks, told the court there was no basis for those diagnoses. He met with Maddie, her father, or both at least 25 times from June to December, and saw no sign of anything so serious.
The father, he said, told him that Maddie sometimes cried, but the reason was she missed her mother.
“It’s OK to be sad," Mosko said. “That’s not a diagnosis.”
If the father truly had waved his hand in Maddie’s face to rouse her attention, nearby staffers would have seen that and alerted him, Mosko said.
Wolson asked Berthold if the father’s own mental-health struggles might be impacting the child.
“They seem to set each other off, because they’re both crying a lot,” Berthold said. “She’s very worried about her daddy. … It would do great psychological harm to [Maddie] to be with one parent and not the other.”