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Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym spoke at the June 19 rally in Rittenhouse Square against the Trump administration's immigration policies. Greta Anderson / AL DÍA News
Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym spoke at the June 19 rally in Rittenhouse Square against the Trump administration's immigration policies. Greta Anderson / AL DÍA News

Berks County Residential Center: Philadelphia City Council calls for immediate shutdown

The Philadelphia City Council has passed a resolution proposed by Councilwoman Helen Gym asking Gov. Tom Wolf to take steps to close the immigrant detention…

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Philadelphia City Council officially adjourned for the summer on June 21, passing a proposed resolution from council members Helen Gym and María Quiñones-Sánchez that calls on Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) to issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO) for the immediate shutdown of the Berks County Residential Center.

Gym introduced two resolutions that were passed relating to immigration reform during the session, the first to support Rep. Bob Brady’s private bill to grant permanent resident status to Carmela Apolonio and her four children taking sanctuary in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. The second was a request for other Philadelphia City Council members to formally implore Gov. Wolf to act upon what Gym and Quiñones-Sánchez write is within his legal power: order the DHS to shut down the immigrant detention center in Berks County.

The passed resolution states “the Council of the City of Philadelphia affirms that the imprisonment and prolonged detention of asylum-seeking children and families is inhumane and counter to international law.”

It also details that while the center — a long-term family detention facility for asylum-seeking migrants in Leesport, Pa. — is contracted out by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it is under the jurisdiction of the county and commonwealth. This is backed up by a 2016 memo written by students from the Sheller Center for Social Justice at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, which identifies three important legal implications that allow Berks County and the DHS to regulate the facility.

The DHS regulates the health and safety of children and adults in the state and issues licenses to all private and government-contracted facilities that hold children.

Berks County is operating as a federal contractor, not a federal agency, in operating the detention center, and is therefore under the jurisdiction of state law.

An ERO is mandatory from the DHS when there is “evidence of gross incompetence, negligence, misconduct in operating the facility or agency, or mistreatment or abuse of clients, likely to constitute an immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the clients,” the memo reads.

Gym and Quiñones-Sánchez’s resolution cites the case of a 19-year-old Honduran woman who was sexually abused by a guard at the Berks facility. The employee pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault and was sentenced to five months in Berks County Prison, which was less time than the woman he victimized spent in the center. The resolution also stated residents have experienced psychological trauma, medical neglect and harassment at the facility in their stays, which often last longer than a year while their asylum cases are processed.

Political pressure on Gov. Wolf and the DHS is mounting as 15 members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly directed a letter to Wolf on June 11 to ask for the shutdown, in addition to Rep. Brandon Boyle (D-PA) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA)’s request sent this week to the governor seeking information about the center.

“Everyone should agree that the incarceration of children and parents is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, cruel and unjust,” the Pa. General Assembly letter states. “There is a growing movement of hate, racism, and xenophobia plaguing our country right now, and that is why we look to the office of the Governor to take a stand for justice.”

In addition, the Coalition to Shut Down Berks, an activist organization, has helped pressure the Berks County Residential Center issue to the top of public officials’ priorities with phone calls to representatives and frequent protests. Representatives from the coalition were present in the City Council session on Thursday and pushing for the ERO.

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