A Mother Detained: Fighting for the Life of Her Son behind bars
It has been more than a year since Natalia* arrived to the United States with her infant and with two adolescents, crossing the perilous border through the Northern River Bravo, fleeing from dangers much more horrific than one could possibly imagine in Honduras, where delinquency, violence, and threats caused by La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has become the norm; living in panic of these gangs and not having any support from the incompetent government is the daily happening in Honduras.
But Natalia could not travel too far before she was discovered, and she and her son were sent henceforth to an “icebox” in Texas, the cells where many an unsuccessful refugee has been retained, with temperatures so frigid that the cells would be more adequate for pieces of butcher meat or pre-packaged frozen foods. Natalia and her son of a year old were there, without a blanket or a mattress to lay their heads on, the 21st of October 2015.
On October 23rd, they were transported to a detention center for families in Texas, the most famous prison, and the fifth largest, in the nation located in Dilley, Texas, where there is a capacity for approximately 80,000 inmates. Natalia said that “In the beginning, it was tolerable, and the food was alright,” but two weeks later, Natalia and her son found themselves again en route to a new center of detention.
Since the 10th of November of 2015, Natalia and her son have been in Berks County Residential Center, and in those 338 days that they have lived behind bars and behind walls, Natalia and other mothers have suffered injustices and disgraces that have forced them to take more drastic measures, such as a hunger strike that achieved both local and national attention. However, it has not been enough, and the thirty-two families remain detained in inhospitable conditions, and according to Natalia, with minimal intentions to offer aid or support in part of the immigration authorities of the I.C.E.
“We were obligated to do this strike because it has been way too long. How is it possible or legal that we have been locked-up for months? We were obligated to stop eating, and although many of us felt awful and we were weak, with headaches and with fevers, we moved forward [with the strike] until we couldn’t any longer.”
In Berks, the experience has been “unbearable” for Natalia and the other families with children that have been detained for over a year (although the center is not licensed and cannot detain these families for that amount of time). The conditions are neither hygienic nor pleasant, and the detained are obligated to clean everything like maids or like employes, although the correctional officers at Berks have told them that the work is “voluntary.” Without the Mothers’ commitment to cleaning, the center would not be a habitable or safe place for their children, for the close quarters between the rooms and the beds, the broken furniture, and only one common bathroom, cause germs to accumulate and illnesses to become more contagious.
To make sure that the conditions in the kitchens are appropriate and sanitary, Natalia cleans the kitchen every day for only one dollar. Natalia told me that it is crucial that everything is cleaned, because according to her, the medical attention of the Center is terrible and not dignified.
“The people [that work at Berks] do not treat us like human beings. For example, last Monday, my son got very sick, and they would not treat him in the prison clinic. He is only two years old, and he was feverish and trembling, but the medics told me to come by later, that they were not going to attend him now. I was the only one waiting there in that clinic, but they demanded that I come back later. Obviously, before my son could enter our room, he began to vomit and his face and his nose drastically reddened. And yet, they still did not want to attend him, we needed to wait. It gives me so much indignation that they treat us like that, like animals.”
Later that same week, on the 21st of September of 2016, another mother that had been detained for 400 days with her two adolescent daughters (one of fourteen and the other sixteen), fainted in her room. She had been dizzy and struggling through many headaches, but it was only in that desperate instant that the medics of the prison clinic attended her, and they took her by ambulance to a hospital, where her gallbladder was operated upon and consequently removed. All of the other Mothers were frightened, including her daughters, but the workers at Berks told them that their mother’s illness was “the fault of the hunger strike.” They returned her to the detention center the 23rd of September, and although the doctor had insisted that she needed a specific diet, a lot of rest, and little physical activity, the correctional officers at Berks turned a blind eye and covered their ears. They denied that the recently-operated needed a nutritious or specific diet for her recuperation, and they demanded that she leave her room and walk down the stairs to get to the cafeteria. Natalia and the other Mothers begged and pleaded to the officers and authorities of the center to permit them to bring food to the woman in a carton or to let the woman come downstairs on the elevator, but they were obstinate, refusing to listen to any of their rational petitions.
Natalia commented over the phone during the interview that these occurrences were typical in the Berks Center, and that she and other families were not treated like humans.
“My own son, despite the fact that he is two years old, is an intelligent and talkative child, he is observant. In December, he will be three years old. He has spent half of his life locked in here with me. He tells me that he wants to leave… He knows that this situation is not normal, and that this is not our home. He tells me ‘Mami, get us out of here,’ and it gives me so much sorrow that I have not been able to give him the liberty that he deserves and desires so strongly.”
Natalia is tired of the injustice, of the humiliations, of the time detained, of the negative consequences of her asylum case, but she will continue fighting for, more than anything else, her son’s liberty. And, incredibly, when I asked her if she regretted feeling to The United States without her papers, she told me no:
“The truth is, nobody here is going to find me and kill me. There is no danger [like the danger in Honduras]. I do not sleep well, but it is not because I am terrified that a gang will come and murder me and leave my son orphaned, it is only because I am bothered, and because I am anxious to leave this prison. I do not regret leaving. I have done all of this for my son. His protection is what gives me the fortitude to continue hoping, and to believe that one day we will be reunited with our relatives in The United States. He is the reason that I have done all of this, but it is not an experience that I would want to repeat.”
Natalia, and the other Mothers, hope that interviews and stories like these will give them the opportunity to have a voice, and the opportunity to touch the hearts of those that read of their suffering and their hopes detained at Berks. More than anything, they want to call attention to these injustices to disseminate information about what has happened in The United States, and the perils they have risked in their own countries of origin (the majority of the Mothers are from Central American countries).
Soon, Natalia and the Mothers will give AL DÍA an e-mail address where you all can ask them “whatever you want,” and to send updates and releases on their fight to protect their children behind bars.