Does Santa Claus visit immigration detention facilities?

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania


This holiday season, there are 41 children incarcerated at Berks County Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Some of these little detainees are toddlers. The youngest is just one year old. This year they’ll find out whether Santa can make it past security at a federal detention center.

Many of these children came to the United States with their mothers seeking refuge from the horrific violence that they suffered in Central America, and have already passed a “credible fear” determination, meaning there is a good chance that they will be granted asylum, giving them legal status to stay in the U.S.

In past years, the Department of Homeland Security typically would have released these families to stay with relatives in the United States as their immigration cases proceeded. Releasing asylum-seekers makes sense; Toy Drive families seeking asylum don’t need to be put in jail. Rarely do these women and children pose a threat to anyone, and they have every incentive to show up for court to pursue their asylum claims.

But now, instead of releasing these families as they await their asylum hearings, DHS chooses to imprison all of them, shipping them off to one of the newly created federal family detention centers around the country—the Berks Center in Pennsylvania, another facility in Karnes, Texas, and a brand new, larger facility in Dilley, Texas.

The Obama administration adopted this policy of categorically denying release to all asylum-seekers from Central America as “an aggressive deterrence strategy” after an increase this past summer in the number of Central American mothers and children coming to the United States. The idea is that keeping these mothers and children locked up for the duration of their immigration proceedings—no matter how unnecessary, no matter how unfair, no matter how traumatizing—will deter other Central American families from seeking refuge in the United States, reducing the overall number of Central American asylum-seekers. In other words, the 41 children at Berks are pawns.

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday challenging DHS’s “no-release” deterrence policy as a violation of federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, both of which prohibit the blanket detention of asylum-seekers for deterrence purposes.

But for the 41 children currently detained at Berks County Residential Center, litigation is far too slow a fix when Christmas is just days away. The children who are old enough to write have written letters to Santa, hopeful that he can bring them a little bit of Christmas joy behind bars.

Rather than leave matters to Santa, I reached out to Carol Anne Donohoe, an immigrants’ rights advocate who represents many of the families detained at the Berks Center, who connected me with the Center’s Recreation Supervisor, Sandy Schlessman, to help Sandy organize a toy drive for the 41 children at Berks. The Berks Toy Drive registry contains a range of age-appropriate gifts approved by the detention center and reflect what many of the children at Berks asked for in their letters to Santa. There is also a toy drive for the children detained at Karnes, Texas, organized by a local church in partnership with Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

Word has already spread around the Berks Center that Santa is coming, and the children are very excited, so please give generously to help brighten their holiday season. At ACLU offices in New York, California, Washington, DC, Texas, and here in Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing our part this December—and all the rest of the year—to ensure that the Berks Center and other federal family detention centers don’t have to become regular stops on Santa’s route.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.