Why We’re Joining the Fight to #ShutDownBerks

By Naureen Shah, Senior Director of Campaigns, Amnesty International USA

In Berks County, Pennsylvania, there’s a place where you can hold a child — though she’s never committed a violent crime or act — for 500 days.

That place, Berks County Residential Center, is known locally as the “baby jail.”

That’s because babies as young as two weeks old have been held there. So have their parents. Their “crimes”? Fleeing horrific violence. Counting on our compassion. Seeking safety on our shores.

These families have been forced to flee their homes because their lives are under threat and their human rights are being violated. They deserve to be treated with compassion and respect while their claims are reviewed and they try to rebuild their lives. Instead, the U.S. government is treating them like criminals, putting them in places like Berks and deporting them back to danger — sometimes death.

It’s shocking, but there are kids spending half their lives like this, learning to walk behind bars. Conditions at Berks are cruel: Kids are woken every 15 minutes with flashlights, for “bed checks,” causing them sleep deprivation and inspiring anxiety and fear. Parents and kids aren’t allowed to sleep in the same bed, even to comfort a scared or sick child.

Today, Amnesty International USA joins hundreds of activists in Pennsylvania and around the country who are fighting to #ShutDownBerks.

Why? Because we all share a responsibility to help people who have lost everything, and to give them a chance to rebuild their lives safely the same way all of us would need to if we were in this horrible situation.


We’re launching Amnesty’s fight by calling on a national figure who has built her political career on advocating for kids and childcare: Ivanka Trump.

We’re urging Ivanka Trump to use her position at the White House to intervene and help the kids and mothers at Berks. As a start, we’re asking her to visit Berks and see what’s happening for herself.

If she does, she could meet kids like 8-year-old Tomás, who spent his birthday behind bars — for the second year in a row.

Tomás and his mother Natalia (not their real names; we are withholding their true identities to avoid putting them at risk) spent 17 months behind bars before recently being deported from Berks. Tomás grew emaciated while there. He weighed about 40 pounds, just one to three percent of the normal weight of a child his age. He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tomás’ family fled their home country because his father Luis had cooperated with local law enforcement, providing them information that led to the arrest of gang members. Fearing he would be exposed and retaliated against for his cooperation, Luis fled to the U.S., where immigration authorities allowed him enter while he pursued his claim for asylum.

However, Tomás and his mother were denied that same opportunity. They were not granted the same opportunity and instead were detained. First in Texas and then at Berks. Though they sought safety for the exact same reasons as Luis, they were never given the opportunity to join his case and were recently deported.


There are far too many people like Tomás and his mother Natalia at Berks and other immigration detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas.

Many are mothers, fathers and kids who fled their homes in Central America, running from horrific violence including near-certain death. Their home countries–El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala–are three countries with some of the most dangerous levels of crime on earth, including extremely high murder rates.

Vicious criminal gangs control large areas of these countries–forcing young boys to join them, girls to become sexual slaves, shop owners and bus drivers to pay hefty taxes, and killing anyone who dares to say no. With their home governments failing them, the people who flee Central America for the U.S. are in desperate situations.

They face an impossible choice: stay and risk violence or flee to the U.S. and risk tearing their family apart or raising a family in prison.

This week, Congress will hearing from Trump administration officials who want to put more families behind bars. The Trump administration is seeking $1.4 billion to detain and deport people like Tomás.

We can’t let this cruel agenda prevail. Join us in fighting back. Start by sending your message to Ivanka Trump and urge that she take action on Berks.