Asylum-seekers held without clear reason in Pa. facility, advocates say

Immigrants being held
Immigrants being held 02:36

Last Updated Mar 4, 2017 1:16 PM EST

BERKS COUNTY, Pa. -- Dozens of women stood with their children at the fence line of a Berks County, Pennsylvania detention center in August, to protest. They came seeking asylum, mostly from Central America, but were held there for months, their lawyers say, without explanation.

Mothers like a woman from Honduras, who CBS News is identifying as Isabel, who was sent to Berks with her 6-year-old son; They were held there for 8 months. A guard was later convicted of sexually assaulting her.

“Isabel” CBS News

“I felt so alone, I wanted to kill myself,” she said.

Dr. Andres Pumariega is on a government committee charged with investigating immigration detention policies.

“Do you yourself know why these people have been held so long?” asked CBS News correspondent Anna Werner.

“No I don’t, that, I ask myself. I don’t know,” Pumariega replied.

He says they do not present a risk. And most asylum seekers without criminal records are held less than three weeks before being released, sometimes with ankle monitors, and told to come back to court for a hearing.

Dr. Andres Pumariega CBS News

Many of the families at the center were held for up to a year. Yet he says when the committee asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide copies of its detention policies, the agency refused.

“It is concerning,” Pumariega said. “Meaning that you wonder if there are criteria, if there are policies that are clear. Or not.”

His group ultimately determined ICE should “simply avoid detaining families,” in part because of the effect on children at Berks.

“You saw these kids, how would you describe their mental state overall?” Werner asked.

“Probably the best description would be shell-shocked,” Pumariega said. “These are traumatized kids being protected by and comforted by traumatized moms.”

Women and children being held at the Berks County detention center CBS News

“And these folks, they think they come for safety and they end up detained,” he said.

CBS News asked ICE why the women and children at Berks have been held so much longer than others, but were told by the agency only that “Many factors can contribute to the length of a resident’s stay,” including the status of their immigration cases.

Berks itself is not even approved in Pennsylvania to house women and children; its license was yanked by the state a year ago and an administrative decision is pending.