Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)
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- State of the State
Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)
A British couple and their three-month-old son are being detained in a federal immigration facility in Pennsylvania after they say they accidentally strayed across the U.S.-Canada border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents arrested the family for unlawfully entering the country while on vacation in British Columbia. The family said, while driving, they swerved down an unmarked road to avoid an animal.
“This is how the scariest experience of our entire lives started,” wrote Eileen Connors, 24, in a sworn statement shared by immigration attorneys with Aldea – The People’s Justice Center, a pro bono legal clinic in Reading.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, CBP refuted that characterization, saying remote video surveillance showed the car “slowly and deliberately” entering the U.S.
A border patrol official said the video did show an animal in the road, but “nobody is going to do that” accidentally.
The Connors have been highly critical of their treatment in U.S. immigration custody.
In a sworn statement, the family said the first night after their arrest in Washington state on October 2, they slept on what they describe as “a dirty floor” in a border patrol station. Connors said the family was asked about family members in the United States they could be released to, but instead of being freed they were transferred to the Berks Family Residential Center, outside Reading, on October 5.
There, they say treatment has worsened. Connors said that the Berks County-run facility was not equipped to care for such a young child, and that normal caretaking items — such as a container of formula and teething powder — have been confiscated. At one point, her baby had no clothes while staff washed the clothes he arrived with.
“This facility is frigid,” said Connors. “The staff here first told us they cannot turn on the heat in the building until the end of next month,” even though temperatures are in the 50s at night.
As a result, she says her son’s health is suffering.
A few days ago, “[he] woke up with his left eye swollen and teary … also his skin is rough and blotchy,” wrote Connor.
In an echo of events at the U.S. southern border, where parents were separated from their children through a “zero tolerance” policy, the family wrote that in response to complaints about conditions, an ICE employee offered to remove their baby.
“If we wanted, we could sign papers to allow him to be separated from us and taken to some other facility,” said Connors. “We were shocked and disgusted.”
ICE did not respond to specific questions about allegations, but said that claims of inhumane treatment are “unequivocally false.”
Reached on Wednesday by email in immigration detention, Eileen Connors said her family would be deported on Wednesday. “[I] just can’t wait to get home as this has been a very bad experience,” she said. An ICE spokesman said the agency generally does not confirm a removal until after it happens.
In addition to the couple and their son, the Connors’ extended family, which includes two other adults and two more young children, were also taken into custody.
As English citizens, the family was entitled to visit the U.S. without a visa.
“They could just come to the United States with a passport,” said attorney Bridget Cambria, who worked on the civil rights complaint which has been filed on behalf of the family with the Department of Homeland Security. “The reason it sounds silly is because it is silly.”
In its statement, CBP said that two of the adults who were arrested had been previously denied travel authorization to the United States, but did not elaborate.
“That means they could have filled out a form wrong,” said Cambria.
Meanwhile, Eileen and her husband David, 30, are locked into an immigration process with few safeguards. People in federal immigration custody are not entitled to legal counsel and even the wrongful arrest of U.S. citizens can take weeks to sort out, as they struggle to prove their identities while in detention.
After their arrest, Canada refused to allow their return, said the CBP spokesman.
The family said they just want to return to England.
“I always loved coming to America,” wrote Eileen, through email. She described visiting the country with her mother while she was growing up, and hoping to do the same with her son. “But now for what has happened I don’t [know] if I would be able to come back this has been a very horrible experience.”
Other foreign tourists have also found themselves in dire straights. Last June, a French citizen visiting her mother in British Columbia was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol after jogging on the beach near the border of Vancouver and Blaine, Washington. She was held in federal immigration detention for two weeks.
Unlawful border crossings in the north are also on the rise, with 4,316 people apprehended at the Candian border in 2018, up from 3,027 the previous year.
In a second statement provided on October 15, an ICE spokesman said that the Connors length of stay is typical for carrying out an expedited removal order, a kind of fast-tracked deportation order, to the U.K.
In her statement, Connors said conditions at the facility slowly improved after she was able to speak to someone from the British Embassy on October 8. Still, she wrote that the experience will haunt them.
“We have been treated like criminals here, stripped of our rights, and lied to,” she said. “We will be traumatized for the rest of our lives.”
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.