By Allyson Chiu / The Washington Post
The Connors family didn’t plan to be on the unmarked road.
Originally from the United Kingdom, the two couples and their three young children were driving near the U.S.-Canada border on Oct. 3 during a visit to Vancouver when an animal ventured into the road, forcing them to make an unexpected detour. But before they could get far, flashing lights from a police car appeared in their rearview mirror. The officer who pulled them over was American — they had accidentally crossed the border.
The vacationing family says this was the moment their trip turned into “the scariest experience of our lives,” according to a complaint filed Friday to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of being allowed to return to Canada or the U.K., Eileen Connors alleges, her entire family, including her 3-month-old son, ended up across the country detained at the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, where they have spent more than a week living in “frigid” and “filthy” conditions. As of late Monday, Bridget Cambria, the Connorses’ lawyer, told The Washington Post that the British family was still at the center waiting to be deported.
“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.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not be reached for comment late Monday. Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed in a statement to the BBC that the family is being held at the Leesport facility, but disputed their claims of mistreatment. The center, the statement said, “provides a safe and humane environment for families as they go through the immigration process.”
“Reports of abuse or inhumane conditions at BFRC are unequivocally false,” officials said.
But Connors, 24, alleges the mistreatment began shortly after her family was stopped by the American officer.
Even before the tourists could explain why they were on the road, Connors wrote, her 30-year-old husband David and his cousin, who was driving at the time, were arrested.
“You crossed an international border,” said the officer, who allegedly did not read the men their rights and ignored the family’s pleas that they had crossed into the U.S. unknowingly and never intended to enter the country during their trip, despite having the proper visas. The complaint did not specify exactly where the incident took place.
The family asked if they could “simply turn around” and were denied, Connors wrote.
Connors and her baby were separated from her husband and placed in “a very cold cell” at an undisclosed Border Patrol station in Washington state, the statement said. Cambria, a lawyer with Aldea — The People’s Justice Center in Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post that the frigid detention cells have a nickname: “hieleras,” or “iceboxes.”
The Connorses were issued “metal-like, thin emergency blankets” to keep warm, according to the complaint. David Connors was also given a foam cup with noodle soup to eat, but he described the meager meal as “not even apt for animals,” the statement said.
Then, all they could do was wait, Eileen Connors wrote.
“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 wrote.
When it came time to sleep, Connors said, she refused to allow her son to “lie on the disgusting floor” next to her, at one point even trying to balance the infant on top of her body.
“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.”
In the morning, immigration officers told the Connors that they could be released if they provided contact information for any family member living in the U.S. who could sponsor them, the statement said. Luckily, a relative with U.S. citizenship agreed to help.
“We were ready for all of this to end,” Connors wrote.
But hours later, the Connorses were informed that they wouldn’t be leaving. There was “a change in plans,” and soon after, they were loaded into a van in what “felt like an abduction or kidnapping,” according to the statement.
David Connors was dropped off at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, while Eileen Connors and her baby were taken to a Red Roof Inn in Seattle to spend the night.
They were reunited the next morning at a promising location: 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.
But, her relief was short-lived.
When the Connorses got off their flight, they were in Pennsylvania. Their final destination was the Berks Family Residential Center, a facility advocates have decried as “baby jail,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The arrival of the Connorses and their infant son on Oct. 5 marked “the first time in a long time that we’ve had a child under the age of 1 in this facility,” Cambria told The Post. The other couple, who had been traveling with the Connorses, and their 2-year-old twins were also transported to Berks, Cambria said.
“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.”
From the moment she and her family were placed in the “iceboxes” in Washington state, Connors wrote, she worried about her son, who has not yet completed his immunizations, falling ill. Those concerns were only heightened once they were at the Berks center.
Connors alleged that she had to bathe her son on a couch inside an office using a washcloth and soap because he was too small for the showers. The baby bathtub she had been provided was “filthy dirty and had broken bits,” she wrote. Her son was also left without clothing, blankets or bibs for several hours because the center’s staff took the items to be washed, the statement said.
“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.”
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 Connors 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 learned that the embassy had tried to contact her and her family while they were detained only 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.
After getting in touch with the embassy, Connors wrote, her family’s situation started to improve. She observed staff members cleaning the facility and she was given a playpen and little tub for her son, according to the statement. ICE officials also suggested that the family would get to go home in the near future, but did not provide details, Connors wrote.
On Monday, Cambria told The Post that the Connorses were “hopeful they’re leaving as soon as” Tuesday.
While there have been other cases as recently as last year of people being detained after accidentally crossing the U.S.-Canada border, Cambria said she was most bothered by “the extreme level of enforcement exhibited” toward the vacationing family and their young children.
“Emotionally and psychologically, they’re destroyed,” Cambria said. “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.”