Immigration advocates decry detention of the six remaining women at Berks
After Berks Correctional Facility shuts down in January 2023, the feds will transfer the last group of detainees to Moshannon.
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‘Tis the season for immigration advocacy groups scattered across Pennsylvania who rallied outside an Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE) field office in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 21, calling for the release of the group of women still held at Berks County Detention Center.
Several coalitions known for their continued efforts to halt immigration detention in PA — including Shut Down Berks, Free Migration Project, Juntos, and CASA for all — chanted to the tune of Christmas carols.
“Shut Down Berks Shut Down Berks, Shut Down Berks today. Oh, how happy we would be if all of them were free,” activists sang to the rhythm of Jingle Bells.
Eight women were remaining in Berks when ICE announced it would be closing its doors in the new year, but by the time the protest started, two of them had been released while pro bono legal group ALDEA works to resolve the pending transfers.
What happens now?
Details surrounding the two women freed from custody remain unclear as of the time of this story publishing. Sources tell AL DÍA the battle for release was grueling.
The remaining women are scheduled for transfer to Moshannon Valley Processing Center located in rural PA, soon to be run by private prison enterprise GEO Group, poised to become the largest migrant detention facility in the region.
“I’m feeling happy and awesome, but still frustrated with the six women that are still [in Berks],” said an energized Myrna González, Director of Organizing at Casa, who led the protesting effort in Philly.
“This is actually an attempt to ask in kindness to set these women free. With the authority that we have since we’ve been working to shut [Berks], is also a demand to set the women free. They don’t deserve to be transferred (...) who deserve to be with their families,” González added.
Casa, along with other local coalitions mostly spearheaded by Shut Down Berks, has applied pressure to Berks officials for years to halt operations altogether, as part of their work to support the Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities in PA.
A stain on PA politics
But earlier this year, when County Commissioners struck a quiet deal with ICE to refashion Berks into a women’s detention center behind closed doors and without community input, immigration advocates became incensed.
During the 2022 midterm cycle, they augmented protests to shine a light on the backdoor dealings of county officials and ICE, at one point targeting then-candidate John Fetterman, now a U.S. Senator, after his Twitter campaign sent an automated message to Shut Down Berks via Twitter requesting a donation.
The last time Fetterman had been in contact with the group was via Twitter in a 2018 vigil at Berks Detention Center.
Eventually, Berks became a stain on PA politics with little to no account of its quiet operation.
After the PA chapter of the American Civil Union (ACLU) sued Berks County Commissioners held hearings where members of the community reportedly expressed opposition to a new contract.
Still, the county commissioners moved forward as originally planned, even as it was reported that Berks was unprofitable.
What advocates suspected was that ICE planned to install a “deportation mill” away from public view but attempts to do so failed since legal groups intervened and argued asylum cases successfully.
Then, Berks unexpectedly announced it would shut its doors permanently, sending a wave of relief to immigration activists who protested Berks for years.
Even so, the migrant detention center also cast a long shadow over the Biden administration, which ordered a suspension of federal reliance on for-profit prisons for detention centers.
Biden’s executive order didn’t apply to ICE detention centers, though, which have solely relied on for-profit prisons to run migrant detention centers in PA.
“For years I have raised concerns about the conditions at Berks to multiple presidential administrations,” said U.S. Senator Bob Casey in a statement.
“I have also urged the Department of Homeland Security to close the center for good to ensure that no future family will endure what they did in detention. The job of government is to protect children, not incarcerate them,” he continued.
All coalitions have at some point told AL DÍA reporters that Biden should unilaterally cancel ICE contracts with for-profit prisons in PA.
There is no indication that the Biden administration plans to apply pressure, stemming from the original executive order, to ICE.
Rising political pressure
County officials who are engaged in a relationship with federal and private sector officials may find it difficult to continue to tread unnoticed as political pressure in the region mounts.
Just this week, State Representative Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05) delivered a scathing letter to the Department of Homeland Security head Alejandro Mayorkas to terminate other incoming ICE contracts in Moshannon Valley.
“ICE does not hold private contract detention facilities accountable for failing to meet quality assurance standards, and when it does, it often grants waivers exempting the facilities from having to meet them,” Scanlon’s letter read.
Also joining the political movement to release the six remaining migrant women is State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (PA-177), who was present at the protest.
Rep. Hohenstein, an immigration attorney, addressed protesters in Spanish and English.
“Before I was an elected state official, I was also an immigration attorney and represented people who were detained at Berks,” he said to the crowd.
“I am overjoyed to see that facility is closing. As the facility is closing, we are also insisting on the liberty for the final six women in Berks,” Hohenstein continued.