Meet Carlos, The 5-year-old Boy Behind Bars For Nearly 700 Days

I’ve partnered with Amnesty International to create a video series about the children and their parents fleeing horrific violence, conflict, and persecution in their home countries only to be thrown into detention here in the United States. They have come here asking for asylum, a form of protection recognized under U.S. and international law. Please join in urging our government to stop locking up families merely seeking safety.  Please join in demanding an end to family detention. 

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Carlos, 5, greets me with a warm and curious smile. Peeking up at me, from behind his mother Lorena’s legs, he clutches a book given to him a day prior by Kristin from Amnesty International’s team. As I ease my way into earning this sweet little boy’s trust, he shows me how he’s already memorized his new book, naming all the animals in both English and Spanish.

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I soon learn that Carlos can’t wait to go to Kindergarten, dreams of riding a bike, enjoys coloring, and loves to spend time playing outside. I sing a song that my mother used to sing to me as a child. Carlos joins me; he knows the lyrics. This song from my mother’s childhood is one of the many commonalities we uncover – yet the stark difference in our trajectories from South and Central America is never lost on me.

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Although Carlos reminds me of my own children at age five, his story is far from typical. At an age where most kids enjoy unstructured play as they come into their own, Carlos spent his time behind bars. Alongside his mother Lorena, this loving little boy spent nearly 700 (yes, seven hundred) of his early childhood days detained inside what is known as the oldest “baby jail” in America, the Berks County Residential Center in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Carlos learned to talk behind bars.

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As Lorena unravels personal accounts of their story it shakes me to my core. The trauma inflicted by our government, and along every step of their escape from violence is beyond unfathomable.

Despite all that Lorena has endured, she is incredibly resilient and affectionate. She is the sort of person who carries (and spreads) such palpable joy. Spending time with Lorena is indeed a gift, and her openness in revisiting her layers of trauma (which often triggers debilitating migraines) is entirely rooted in helping others still behind bars.

Lorena and Carlos fled gang violence, extortion and kidnapping threats at gunpoint in their home country – a place where Amnesty International has documented horrific violence. This mother left everything she knew, with her 2-year-old son in her arms to make the arduous and dangerous journey to the United States in hopes of a simple human right: safety. Lorena and her son could have lost their lives, like so many others, had she stayed paralyzed in fear and not fled.

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As a mother, I cannot even begin to imagine being in this impossible predicament. But I sure as hell know that I too would flee with my family wrapped in my arms if conflict threatened the lives of my children. I would leave everything I knew, and trade every dollar, for the hope of a path to safety, and security.

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Lorena and Carlos were apprehended crossing the border to Texas. Lorena was holding her young toddler in her arms as they were pulled out of the water. The details which weave their testimony together are gut-wrenching, cruel and unjust – along with the experience of their time in Berks, behind bars.

The Berks is not a hotel stay or a home. It is a jail with guards and cameras. Berks is a place where families, babies, children, and teens are woken up for bed-checks at all hours of the night. It is a place where kids can’t consume home-cooked meals. It is a place where children and parents are forced to eat unfamiliar processed, cold foods. Berks is the place where a guard was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager detained there.

Mothers and fathers are facing an impossible choice – flee violence and persecution in their home countries – or stay and risk their children’s lives. If you aren’t outraged, sickened and profoundly saddened by the brutal reports of the U.S. government forcibly separating children from their parents, then you are not paying attention. Sadly, this is hardly over. Thousands of children and babies forcibly separated from their parents at the border must be reunified. President Trump’s recent Executive Order is not a plan to stop violating the rights of people feeling unimaginable violence. This Executive Order imprisons families indefinitely, inflicting further harm on children and their parents.

Detaining families seeking asylum together is not a solution.

We must be morally obligated to demand this stop.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION:

Carlos and Lorena are now free, thanks to Amnesty and its dedicated supporters – but so many others are in dire need of help.

Amnesty International is tirelessly working to stop the inhumane practice of jailing families seeking asylum. Please join in taking action today:

CALL YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS: Call upon your representatives to end the inhumane practice of jailing families seeking asylum. The number for the congressional switchboard is 1-844-879-0282.

SIGN THE PETITION: I always thought that signing petitions felt like the most inactive form of activism – but my time spent with the Amnesty team taught me that signatures on their petitions absolutely make a difference. If you do one thing today, please sign the petitions here and here.

USE YOUR VOICE: Talk to your family, friends, neighbors, and social media communities about how the Executive Order only inflicts further harm. Talk about the families behind bars on U.S. soil at places like Berks, and spread the word that we’re fighting for the end of family detention, and for the recent ruling baring family separation and ordering reunification to be implemented.

I will be sharing further. Thank you so much for reading.

Carlos and Lorena are not their real names. *

Thank you, Amnesty International USA for sponsoring this post.

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Fleeing Violence is Not a Crime: The Berks Kids & How To Help

Thank you, Amnesty International USA for sponsoring this post.

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The holidays are upon us.  And as we turn towards this season that means so much to many of us, it’s crucial to know that there are families in Pennsylvania merely hoping for freedom at Berks County Residential Center, where kids (yes children, teens, and even babies) alongside their mothers and fathers are being locked up in jail.  Parents are facing an impossible choice: stay and risk violence or flee to the U.S. and risk ending up behind bars with their children.  Berks is currently holding at least 60 parents and kids. Many of them are from Central America, where Amnesty International has documented horrific violence. If deported, many of these families will be facing incredibly dangerous situations, perhaps even death, upon their return.

Imagine fleeing for your life and the safety and security of your children, only to watch them learn how to walk and talk and have birthdays and holidays pass in jail.  How can leaving the only home you know to seek safety and freedom for your family, be punished as a crime right here in the United States? How can this happen in a country that agreed, decades ago, to treat people with compassion while respecting their human rights as their claims are considered?

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Alongside Amnesty International, dedicated lawyers, and global activists – there is an imperative to get involved right now.  Change takes time.  In August, four families were released after being held for nearly two years at Berks.

Two whole years.

730 days.  

Whether for two weeks or two years, no family should be jailed for seeking safety.

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Families have been forced to flee their homes because their lives are under threat and their human rights are being violated. We all share a responsibility to help people who have lost everything, and to give them a chance to rebuild their lives safely the same way all of us would need to if we were in this horrible situation.

HOW TO HELP

  • Amnesty International USA is fighting to ensure that people with asylum claims are given a fair hearing and humane treatment. Learn all of the details on their website, sign their petitions and encourage others to sign them too.
  • Call upon the U.S. administration to stop locking up children and their parents for seeking safety. Use your voice on social media demanding the immediate release of #TheBerksKids.
  • Watch the below video and share it with your friends, families, and networks.


We must do everything we can to end this human rights crisis and ensure protection for people who are fleeing violence.

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We must do everything we can to set children and their parents free.

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of CLEVER and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

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