After mistakenly crossing US border, British family is detained by ICE in “frigid, filthy” prison

The mistreatment of arrested refugees by the ICE/for-profit detention center complex instituted by the Trump administration has been well documented – with the separation of families and caging of children raising outrage among any American with a conscience.

Even among those middle class white Americans who sympathize with the plight of the detainees, however, the victims of Trump’s harsh immigration crackdown are seen as different from themselves, possessing darker skin and speaking a foreign language that prevents the Americans as seeing the immigrants as people in whose place they could one day find themselves.

The recent plight of a family who found themselves accidentally crossing the border into America from Canada while on an obscure backroad can provide those U.S. citizens who can’t completely identify with the fates of ICE detainees with a more relatable example to help them imagine what it would be like to be subject to the rough justice afforded to those the immigration police have targeted.

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The Washinton Post reports the story of the Connors — a British family who were driving on an unmarked road near the U.S.-Canadian border on October 3rd while on a vacation to Vancouver when an animal blocking the road forced them to make an unexpected detour.

Soon the flashing lights of an American police car helped them realize that they had inadvertently crossed the border.

Rather than simply allowing them to turn around and get back on the right path, the entire family was arrested, beginning an ordeal that resulted in the temporary separation of the family members and their eventual incarceration in the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania — a facility they describe as “frigid” and “filthy” — an experience they described as “the scariest experience of our lives” in a complaint registered with the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department.

“We will never forget, we will be traumatized for the rest of our lives by what the United States government has done to us,” Connors wrote in a sworn statement, later adding, “We have been treated like criminals here, stripped of our rights, and lied to. … It is undoubtedly the worst experience we have ever lived through.”

The arrest of the vacationing family took place before they were even allowed to explain the circumstances of their accidental border crossing to the arresting officer who never explained to the family any of their rights and ignored their pleas to allow them to go back into Canada and the fact that they actually had valid visas.

Two members of the group, Eileen Connors and her 3-month-old son, were separated from the rest of the family and were brought to an undisclosed Border Patrol station in Washington state where they were put into “a very cold cell” — nicknamed “hieleras” or “iceboxes” by ICE workers — according to their statement and given standard-issue thin metallic blankets for warmth and a styrofoam cup of instant noodles as their only food.

“The officers left us in the cell the entire day, with no information, no call to our family back home, no idea when we would be free to leave,” Connors said.

With the floor of the cell filthy, Ms. Connors was forced to try to balance her infant on her body as she tried to sleep

“We are so sickened by all of this,” she wrote. “The idea and memory of our little baby having to sleep on a dirty floor of a cell will haunt us forever.”

The next morning, the Connors family thought that their ordeal would soon be over when they were told that they could be released if they could provide contact information for a family member who lived in the United States and could sponsor them. Luckily, they thought, they had an American citizen relative had agreed to help them.

Instead, ICE officials told the family that there had been a change of plans. They were loaded into a van in what the Connors described in their statement as an event that “felt like an abduction or kidnapping” and dropped off at separate locations. Eileen Connors and her infant were brought to a Red Roof Inn in Seattle while her husband was taken to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.

The next day the family had a brief moment of hope as they were reunited at the Seattle Airport.

“I thought, finally we’re going home and felt relieved, even though the officers would not tell me where we were going or why,” Eileen Connors wrote in her complaint to the DHS inspector general.

Instead of being deported back home to the UK, however, after they landed, the family found themselves at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, a facility described by The Philadelphia Enquirer as a “baby jail.”

The lawyer for the Connors, Bridget Cambria, told The Washington Post that the decisions made by ICE personal in their treatment of the family were needlessly reckless and cruel.

“I don’t believe that it’s suitable for children that young because newborns probably shouldn’t be around a hundred other kids all of whom are coming from different parts of the world,” she said, adding, “There were a lot silly decisions made along the way. In this instance, when you’re talking about a 3-month-old, those silly decisions can be really dangerous.”

Elaine Connors detailed her travails trying to care for her infant in the prison in a way that should horrify anyone who reads it. She describes having to wash her baby in a filthy broken basin and the baby being left without clothing, blankets or bibs for hours.

“The blankets and sheets in our room have a disgusting smell, like a dead dog,” Connors wrote. “I cannot use them to wrap up my baby for fear they haven’t been washed properly and my baby will become sick.”

According to The Post:

“On Friday, Connors wrote that her baby ‘woke up with his left eye swollen and teary’ and his skin was ‘rough and blotchy.’ Officials told the Connorses that their son was ‘a bit young’ to be at the center, and if they wanted they could sign papers allowing him to be separated from them, the statement said.”

“’We were shocked and disgusted at the thought of our baby being taken from us, and ever since I cannot sleep thinking that someone might come in and take him from me,’ Connors wrote.”

“Beyond the alleged living conditions, the Connorses also claim that they were not given an opportunity to call their embassy, instead relying on family members to reach out on their behalf. In the statement, Eileen Connors wrote that she only learned that the embassy had tried to contact her and her family while they were detained on Oct. 7, accusing the center’s staff of not passing along the message until it was too late in the day to call back.”

As of press time, the Connors were still in custody, although after finally being able to contact their embassy, they are expected to be released and deported shortly. Their lawyer, however,  says:

“Emotionally and psychologically, they’re destroyed. They’re very upset about what’s happened to them because it doesn’t make sense. Anyone that reads their statement or hears their story will not understand how this could’ve possibly happened.”

To anyone who tsk-tsks after reading stories of the mistreatment of despairing refugees on the southern border while unconsciously acknowledging that something like that could never happen to themselves, the experience of the Connors family is a cautionary tale that may make them think twice and realize how indiscriminate US Customs and Border patrol and their ICE enforcement units can truly be in their overzealous punishment of anyone who crosses their paths.

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Original reporting by Allyson Chiu at The Washinton Post.

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Vinnie Longobardo

Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile, & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.


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