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Children as Young as Three Detained 500 Days and Counting in Disgraceful Immigrant Prisons

For more than 600 days and two Christmas holidays, Marlene and her seven-year-old son Antonio have languished in indefinite detention at Pennsylvania’s “Berks Family Residential Center,” a glorified term for an immigrant prison. Her child has been granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which the U.S. government says is supposed to “help foreign children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.” But instead of sanctuary, or even a fair hearing, Marlene and her son face open-ended incarceration and “expedited removal” orders, compounding the trauma they endured when they were forced to flee their home in El Salvador under threat of gang violence.

“My son always asks me when we are going to be able to get out of here and be with our aunts and uncles,” Marlene told AlterNet over the phone from Berks, using pseudonyms for herself and her child in order to protect their privacy. “It’s a really hard thing psychologically for him to be here. It’s not easy for a boy of seven years to spend Christmas here. The kids deserve freedom.”

Antonio is one of four children ensnared in long-term detention at Berks despite having been granted SIJS and submitted pending applications for legal permanent residency. Their lawyers say that the heavy-handed approach of immigration authorities towards these children—the youngest of whom is three—is unprecedented.

Carol Anne Donohoe, one of three attorneys who have represented families at Berks since it opened in 2014, told AlterNet that she does not know of any other case where children granted SIJS status were forced to remain incarcerated and subjected to expedited removal orders. Three of the SIJS-protected children have already been formally issued an Employment Authorization Document and are eligible to receive social security cards—signs that they are well-along in their legal efforts to attain freedom and residency in the United States. Furthermore, according to Amnesty International, “Under U.S. law, a minor with SIJS is considered to have been paroled in the U.S.”

“The question is, what is the reason Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) feels compelled to continue to detain four kids, the youngest of whom is three, when they have pending applications for permanent relief?” Donohoe told AlterNet. “ICE has discretionary parole authority to release them at any time, but instead they have dug in their heels.”