Senators Press Feds to Stop Locking Up Central American Families Who Have Fled for Their Lives

“Family detention is wrong and should be ended immediately.”

Children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a family detention center in Texas.<a href="">Eric Gay</a>/AP

Roughly 30 Central American women and their children who are applying for asylum in the United States are being held outside Philadelphia in a federal immigration detention center called the Berks County Residential Center. Many have been there for more than a year, and in August, 22 mothers went on hunger strike to protest their prolonged detention. Now, a group of 17 Democratic senators, including former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and current vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, have called on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to release the families and end the practice of family detention.

“Many of these mothers have asylum claims based on rape, severe domestic violence, and murder threats,” the senators wrote in a letter released on Tuesday. “It is unconscionable to keep these children locked up and goes against our most fundamental values.” The children at Berks, who make up about half the population of detainees, range in age from 2 to 16 years old. Many have been held for months and, in some cases, more than a year. The senators said family detention is “wrong” and “should be ended immediately,” pointing to research showing that prolonged confinement is harmful to children’s physical and mental health.

The Berks Center is one of three family detention centers in the country. The other two, located in Texas, were opened by the Obama administration in 2014 in response to the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Around that time, the centers came under scrutiny for poor medical care, lack of access to legal council, and alleged sexual abuse. (Earlier this year, one former guard at Berks was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting a teenage detainee.)

Last summer, the administration announced a series of reforms to reduce the length of confinement. Shortly afterward, a district court in California ordered the government to release migrant children within three to five days of their initial confinement, or within 20 days under extreme circumstances. The administration says it has taken steps to come into compliance with that court decision. Secretary Johnson has said his agency is detaining families for an average of 20 days or less, but advocates say the experience of the Berks mothers tells another story.

The 17 senators urged Johnson to review their cases and release them unless they are a serious flight risk or threat to public safety. Hillary Clinton has taken a similar position as her running mate and called for an end to family detention.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.