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Artwork by Meg Lemieur/Shut Down Berks Coalition
Shut Down Berks has been working for years to shut down the Berks County Family Detention Center. Artwork by Meg Lemieur/Shut Down Berks Coalition

Families at Berks County Detention Center released, now the entire facility should close

Of the seven or eight families that remained at the center, all were released to their families in other parts of the country as they await asylum hearings.

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On Sunday, Feb. 28, PA Senator Bob Casey announced that all of the families residing at Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania have been released. 

The facility is licensed to hold up to 96 people, and the families held in the center “are not charged with criminal violations and are only held in custody to assure their presences throughout the administrative hearing process,” according to the county’s contract with ICE. 

As he announced the news, Casey said “the next step is to permanently close the center so that no future family or child is forced to go through what these families have endured.” 

Casey has expressed concerns over the prolonged detention of migrant families since the beginning of the Obama administration, and is among many who have been calling for the release of children and families held at the Berks center, including Gov. Tom Wolf

The Berks facility was one of three detention centers nationwide that housed migrant adults and their children. Berks County managed the center and received reimbursement from the federal government. 

Immigration activists have been fighting for years to get the Berks County center shut down, insisting that the detainment of children is  inhumane and that the conditions and mistreatment of the detainees at Berks were deplorable. However, federal and county officials have consistently denied these claims. 

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has been advocating for its closure for over five years, and just recently joined Detention Watch Network in a new campaign to shut down the Berks facility along with nine other detention centers across the country. 

Activist groups such as Shut Down Berks have held frequent rallies, protests and vigils held outside the center. One such vigil was scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 28, but was cancelled due to inclement weather and social distancing concerns. 

As of last week, there had been seven or eight families housed in the center, according to Bridget Camrbia, a Reading-based immigration advocate and lawyer, representing detainees in the center. 

The families of the detainees were notified on Thursday night and Friday morning that they would be released. 

Cambria said that those who had been detained at the Berks facility came to the U.S. from Central America, Afghanistan, Cuba and Russia. They have all since been safely reunited with their families in California, Virginia, Texas and elsewhere as they await their asylum hearings. 

Although Camrbia is happy and pleasantly surprised to hear about the families being released, she still considers the facility to be an active detention center until ICE announces otherwise. She said she will still be looking out for others being detained there, and hopes that the facility is being used for a different purpose. 

“I don’t know what the future holds, but it’s a step,” she said. 

Cambria assisted families in leaving the facility, through driving them to the airport or to her office, where families could pick them up, and she reported that the families were very grateful for their release. 

“They all thanked God,” she said. 

The Rev. Sandra L. Strauss, director of advocacy and ecumenical outreach for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, who had planned the vigil that would have taken place on Sunday, is cautiously optimistic about the news. 

“This is what we’ve wanted for years,” she said. 

The Shut Down Berks Coalition is now calling on President Joe Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to permanently close the Berks facility as well as the two other family detention centers, Karnes and Dilley, to truly achieve an end to family detention. 

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