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Two asylum-seeking families in Pennsylvania safe from deportation, for now

Seeking asylum is perfectly legal. The only thing that is illegal here are the rules under which these people are being held.”

  • Anthony Orozco
Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

This story has been updated to include information about a letter from Pennsylvania Congressmen.

(Bern Township) – A federal court late last month temporarily stopped the deportation of 26 asylum-seeking families in Pennsylvania and Texas.

But that order does not fully protect them. In the meantime, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. will review if the families can continue their legal fight to obtain asylum in the United States.

UPDATE: Seven members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation endorsed a letter Wednesday urging the Trump Administration to grant relief for asylum-seeking families.

The bipartisan effort calls on Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf to grant stays of removal for all children detained in Berks County and Texas.

It also requests Wolf consider releasing families from the Berks Family Residential Center and one in Texas, saying deporting them during the coronavirus pandemic to countries they fled out of fear is cruel and unjust.

Democratic Congressman Dwight Evans, of Philadelphia, was the lead on the letter.

“These children and their families deserve a fair opportunity to present the cases for asylum,” Evans said. “Children do not deserve the situation that they’re in, so we use our offices collectively to send a message.”

The signers of the letter represent the southeast region of the state.

Endorsers included six Democrats: Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon; Rep. Chrissy Houlahan; Rep. Susan Wild; Rep. Brendan F. Boyle and Rep. Madeleine Dean.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was the sole Republican to sign the letter.

Activists gathered Nov. 25 outside the Berks County Residential Center, where two of the families are currently being held.

Adriana Zambrano is the programs coordinator for ALDEA, the Reading-based legal nonprofit representing families in the case. She said the immigration system is unlawfully holding and deporting families.

“What we hear from the other side is that [asylum-seeking families are] illegal, and I’m here to tell you and the monsters that run this place, they’re not,” Zambrano said. “Seeking asylum is perfectly legal; the only thing that is illegal here are the rules under which these people, the families are being held.”

Amy Maldonado, an attorney working on the case on behalf of ALDEA, said there have been multiple instances that asylum policy implemented by the administration of President Donald Trump has been found unlawful, and that the families deserve a fair interview to find whether they have credible fear of being deported to their country of origin.

Troy Turner, an organizer within the coalition of civic groups fighting family detention, said the families’ treatment by immigration officials flies in the face of Thanksgiving tradition.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition protested outside the Berks County Residential Center.

“Deporting families seeking refuge, right before Thanksgiving nonetheless, is like peak un-American,” Turner said. “They have exercised their right to migrate to seek asylum and are now facing rush deportations.”

There are 20 adults and children in the Berks center, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Six of them are part of the court-ordered halt to deportation.

ICE officials say family detention is done appropriately and in conformity with the law. But ALDEA and others have long argued the asylum process has been marred by Trump’s immigration policies.

Most of the families face deportation due to what is known as the Safe Third Country Transit Ban.

That ban, which the Trump Administration began in July 2019, requires people who travel through other countries on the way to seek asylum in the United States to first request it in one of those other countries. A year later, two federal courts struck it down.

A judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the rule should have gone through public comment first. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that the administration was doing “virtually nothing to ensure that a third country is a safe option.

The process used to interview asylum seekers — the first step in applying for asylum — has also come under fire.

Asylum seekers had to take questions from Customs and Border Protection officers instead of specialized asylum officers to establish that they had credible fear of returning to their countries.

Alanna Elder contributed to this report.

Alanna and Anthony are part of  the “Report for America” program  — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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