shutterstock_121160620Ana was all of 11 days old when we met at the Berks Detention Center.  She was not always the most cooperative client. I don’t believe she even bothered to look at me in the two weeks she resided at the detention center. In fact her eyes didn’t open at all. She had extremely poor communication skills, well, no communication skills in fact. I bored her to sleep most days. I am also quite positive that I annoyed her with my constant ogling and raving about her cuteness. We got by, however, and I could see her story and her cause in her very tiny, pink hands.

She is now one of my best friends.  As we sat in court last week, she brilliantly turned her obstinance away from me and directed it toward her adversaries and the Immigration Court.  She has grown into the most beautiful, chubby, happy, ten-month-old baby. We, the grown-ups, sat patiently awaiting court, but Ana was having none of it.  She would peek out of her car seat every moment or two, make eye contact with me, screech and smile. She has mastered rocking in her car seat, and did so with impunity as the judge attempted to conduct what is a very serious removal proceeding that will determine her future and her safety.  Though Ana has already succeeded in defeating removal proceedings on one occasion, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has determined that it would like a second chance to order the removal of this spectacular girl, while her mother continues to fight for her right to live, free from persecution, in the United States.

I wish I could say that seeing this small newborn baby in detention was the most outrageous thing I have witnessed in the last year of fighting for children and their parents stuck in family detention. But that would be a lie. I witnessed medical neglect, prescriptions of water for every ailment, and suicidal ideation of mothers and their daughters. I received calls in the middle of the night of clients sick, throwing up blood, losing consciousness, having panic attacks, some driven to insanity.

We dealt with the rape of a 19-year-old detainee, whose sexual assaults (yes, more than one) occurred in public spaces (bathrooms/chapel/laundry room/playground) and in front of children, including a seven-year-old victim of child molestation (who has since been granted asylum).  During the federal investigation that ensued, (with no notification to counsel), the women and children were silenced with threats of deportation. Finally, after two months, they trusted us enough to break that silence. And when they spoke, they were punished with a denigrating and sexist clothing policy that applied to the women and children as young as five, and the continued intimidation and detention of, not only the witnesses, but the rape victim herself. The Berks County Residential Center (BCRC)’s answer was essentially that it was the fault of the victim, that these women asked for it.

The trauma to the mothers and children does not end in detention. Even after release, many children still cannot sleep through the night without nightmares of Berks, without the constant fear of being sent back to detention, and without relearning basic skills (such as going to the bathroom alone and eating). Others demonstrate defiant disorders as a result of the destruction of the parent-child relationship in detention.  In one instance, an eight-year-old boy threatened to stab his mother after release because “he knows what jail is like” and she can’t control him.

Since May of last year, advocates in Berks and in Texas have been screaming at the top of our lungs about the imprisonment of children and their parents, a blatant violation of the human rights of refugees.  We were met with the obstinance of the Obama Administration and county governments who value revenue over the rights of children.

So Pennsylvania advocates turned their focus to the state, whose laws govern the welfare of all children within its borders. Federalism at its best. Community organizations, attorneys, universities such as UPenn, Temple, and Villanova, all mobilized to attack what made Berks different than Karnes and Dilley. Berks had a license. That’s right – it “had” a license.

Last week, as I was catching a connecting flight after baby Ana’s hearing, advocates from Berks County’s Make the Road PA, my law partner Jackie Kline, and good friend and Berks lawyer, Carol Anne Donohoe had just left a meeting with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary, Ted Dallas. Tears were shed while they explained how our lives have changed in the last year, and how these moms, dads and children had suffered in prolonged family detention. They defined these families as refugees. They explained how the facility was secure. They showed Secretary Dallas a picture of the bloody shirt of our two year old client Katherine. They showed him a picture of baby Ana.

They explained all the possible ways that Berks violated the terms of its license. Most importantly, the pointed out that the code under which Berks was licensed is exclusively for the care of children, not adults, that in fact there is no mention and no indication that the Pennsylvania child welfare statutes ever contemplated the care of children while detained with adults, both related and unrelated. They emphasized that the fact that Berks was licensed by the state of Pennsylvania should not be the basis for permiting the licensing of more child prisons in Texas.

Following the meeting, Jackie and Carol Anne updated me as I sat on that plane. They were exhausted but exultant because for the first time in a year and a half, they spoke to a government official who listened, understood, and had the power to take a step in the name of the state of Pennsylvania towards the end of family detention.  But we were also cautious. As folks who have dealt with family detention and all its upheaval, we don’t believe anything until we see it.

About two weeks ago, one day after this meeting, Secretary Dallas issued a letter on behalf of the state of Pennsylvania confirming that the center was operating outside of the bounds of its license. The state recognized that Berks was licensed as a child residential facility but had become a secure facility solely for the detention of families.  The letter stated that there was no law in the State of Pennsylvania which permitted the detention of refugee families and that not only would the license not be expanded, but if families continue to be detained there, it would also not be renewed. The letter concluded that unless the BCRC changes its operations in order to comply with the license requirements, “appropriate action” would be taken. Who knows what that means, but it sounds good to me.

Now we sit and wait. What impact will the lack of a license have on the operation of Berks? What effect will these events have on the efforts to license Karnes and Dilley?

Our work is not over until we end family detention. The BCRC is the family detention center most people forget about. People called it the model of “civil detention,” whatever that means. There is nothing civil about the indefinite and punitive imprisonment of children for no reason other than money, whether it be the county of Berks or a private prison complex in Texas.

Here’s where truth is stranger than fiction. I am a Berks alum from years back, when I saw the bravery of extraordinary families more than 13 years ago as an employee at the BCRC. It was then that I decided to go to law school to help these kids.  As I left the center in 2002, I remember the send-off I received from the kids as I left. They wrote me cards, and I remember several of them asked a simple question, why wasn’t I already a lawyer so I could help them with their cases? They had no one. I also remember the send-off I received from my boss at the BCRC, who advised me not to become one of those lawyers that represent these “assholes.”

To me, this fight to end family detention is personal. The forthcoming loss of the BCRC license is a huge victory in the battle against family detention, but it pales in comparison with the relationships I’ve formed with my clients and fellow advocates, who I will always consider my family.

Written by Bridget Cambria, AILA Member and Berks Volunteer


Recently, the Pennsylvania Bar Association recognized Carol Anne Donohoe, Jacquelyn Kline, and Bridget Cambria with the Pro Bono Award “for their work representing immigrant families in the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township.” In this article, Berks County Bar Association Executive Director Donald Smith applauded them for their exemplary work; the three have represented a total of more than 200 asylum-seeking clients in the center.

How can you help?

Late last week, a state court in Texas issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the temporary licensing of the two facilities holding mothers and children in Texas. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12. This is wonderful news, but temporary, unless you make the case to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services about why they shouldn’t license the centers. Find out how through this Take Action page on

If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at– we could really use your help.

If you would like to donate funds please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.