Last migrant detainees freed from Berks
Berks County Residential Center, scheduled to close its doors at the end of January, is now vacant.
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An eight-year campaign to release detained migrant women at Berks County Residential Center came to a close on Tuesday, Jan. 11, when immigration rights activists announced that all remaining detainees were released.
When a coalition of immigration advocacy groups rallied at a Philly-based Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in December to enjoin the release of the migrant prisoners, there were six women incarcerated.
A press release by Shut Down Berks — the coalition at the forefront of the battle to pressure Berks Detention Center — did not specify the manner in which the women obtained the terms of release, but previous reporting shows other neighboring legal groups had been actively working to secure asylum cases.
“For years, I’ve fought to end the incarceration of immigrants in my backyard, and today we celebrate freedom,” Flor Gonzáles, Member Leader of Make the Road Pennsylvania and resident of Reading, said in a statement.
“This victory belongs to the immigrant families and women detained at Berks who shared their stories and demanded dignity, and to the organizers who never lost hope and never stopped fighting for immigrant families to be free and together. We took this fight from Berks County to Harrisburg and all the way to the White House, and I’m proud to say that organizing works. Today is a good day.”
Numerous pro-bono legal and immigrant rights groups had been involved in pressuring Berks to release the detainees well before it announced it would be shutting down operations at the end of January 2023.
One of the lawyers associated with the legal teams assembled to argue on behalf of the migrant women previously told AL DÍA they had “frustrated” the system and prevented Berks from establishing a “deportation mill” in the county’s backyard.
The women held at Berks by ICE had documented the precarious circumstances under which they’d been held.
They remembered hours-long bus rides with no bathroom breaks and no food, while others recalled being shut off from the outside altogether.
“This victory feels like a dream. I feel happy, content, and free. Closing Berks detention center is the best thing that could have happened,” said Liliana Perez, a formerly detained woman who is now a member of CASA, a national immigrant rights organization.
“I spent more than one month in detention, and my sick daughter was never cared for or given the medicine she needed while I was in prison. This detention center created a lot of suffering, and I am overjoyed to see it finally close. The same freedom that I have [now] should be given to other immigrants in Pennsylvania and across the country”
Another woman, Lorena — who was detained with her two-year-old son — said her time at Berks had led to depressive episodes.
“I’m here to tell a small part of my story at the Berks facility. For me, it was something very traumatic to spend so much time there, almost two years,” she said.
“I left with a lot of depression, [and] to this day, I am in therapy. I just thank God that this place [will] finally close. They don't know the trauma of being locked up.”
The Berks migrants had originally been poised for transfer to other facilities in the state.
Moshannon, which entered into a contract with GEO Group, a for-profit prison business, will open doors for a migrant detention facility located in rural PA.
But negotiations face increasing pressure as county officials express opposition to the contract, according to a press release sent in December, which underlined the documented practices at other facilities run by GEO Group.
“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,” wrote Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), who was joined by Congressman Dwight Evans (PA-03) in a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Jan. 11.
The letter did not mention other migrant detention centers scattered across the Commonwealth, including those in Clinton and Pike counties.
As what remains for Berks, Shut Down Berks said they would be working with county officials to turn the facility into a health and human resource and service center.