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Organizations have been calling for the closure of the Berks County Detention Center for years. Photo: TSURU for Solidarity

Make the Road PA sues Berks County Commissioners over secretive decision making surrounding the Berks County Detention Center

The grassroots organization is joined by others and members of the community who want the facility closed and decommissioned for good.

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On Friday March 26, 2021, Berks County community members and the immigrants rights organization, Make the Road Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners Christian Leinbach, Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera. 

The lawsuit, filed by Sheller Center for Social Justice of Temple University Law School, cites the “deliberate effort by the Berks County Commissioners to hide their decision-making surrounding the Berks County family prison from the public.” 

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has been advocating for the closure of the Berks County detention center for over five years, and just recently joined Detention Watch Network in a campaign to shut it down along with nine other detention centers across the country that have a long history of abuse and neglect. 

On Sunday, Feb. 28, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey announced that all of the families residing at the Berks County center had been released. 

Although the release of these families was a victory for many immigration rights activists, they knew the fight would not be over until all ICE and DHS contracts were terminated. 

ICE and Berks County Commissioners have been conducting private discussions concerning future use of the facility. An anonymous DHS official told The Washington Post that ICE has strongly been considering turning it into a women’s-only detention center.

In response, more than 100 organizations penned a letter to the Biden administration, urging them to terminate all contracts with ICE and DHS and shut down the Berks facility for good. 

In late February, the Berks County Commissioners voted in favor of a resolution to submit a letter in support of an ICE white paper proposal regarding future use of the facility. However,  the Commissioners provided no information about this letter and proposal to the public, thus preventing them from having the opportunity to raise concerns or objections. 

Berks residents are very displeased with the secrecy of the negotiations, and feel that it is undemocratic to refuse transparency with their constituents on a matter that directly impacts the community. 

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that the decisions of public agencies be made public and subject to public scrutiny. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and the public must be able to attend and participate in the discussion before an agency takes an official action. 

This act condemns this kind of secrecy as it “undermines the faith of the public in government.” 

The Shut Down Berks Coalition is standing firm with community members who are demanding transparency and accountability from their local elected officials. 

The community has made it clear on many occasions that they do not want the prior family residential center to be transformed into a women’s prison. Rather, they would prefer that the vacant facility be repurposed for community programming that will actually contribute positively to surrounding residents. 

“They want and deserve real human services that support and care for, not criminalize people,” Make the Road PA said in a statement. 

During a news conference on Tuesday, March 23, Make the Road organizer Armando Jimenez Carbarin stated very clearly that both community members and those in his organization do not want immigrants being detained in the facility any longer. 

“We want something that is not anti-immigrant, something that helps the community. … We don’t want ICE to be there, in the backyard of Reading and Berks County,” Carbarin said. 

The now-vacant center, which was once called the Berks County Residential Center, is located about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia and was one of only three centers in the U.S. where the federal government confined migrant families. 

Its population has fluctuated up and down over time, with the number of families entering the country at a given time, and, if and where the federal government decides to detain them. 

In October 2019, the center held around 40 migrant adults and children, the youngest of which was a six-month-old baby

The purpose of the Berks family detention center was to confine immigrants who were awaiting court hearings, which former President Donald Trump insisted was the only way to ensure their presence. 

Trump made the wildly inaccurate claim that as little as 2% of migrant families released to friends, family members or sponsors actually returned for their court date. 

Yet, studies have shown that upwards of 80% of these families appear in court as directed. 

A new study by the American Immigration Council added more nuance and depth to this issue. In their January analysis based on government data, the council found that among immigrants who were not detained, 83% with completed or pending deportation cases attended all of their hearings between 2008 and 2018. 

Among those that had access to legal representation, 96% attended all of their hearings during those years. 

The council stated that because Trump repeatedly shared misinformation about noncitizens, policymakers used these falsehoods to make key decisions about expanding detention and reducing access to asylum. 

Activists have called on the Biden administration to immediately end the detainment of migrants seeking asylum. 

Jennifer Lee of the Sheller Center told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the new lawsuit won’t force the Berks commissioners to stop contracting with ICE, but it would require them to publicly explain and discuss their decisions. 

Cabarin knows that the fight is far from over. 

“More families can continue to be brought back in. All of us need to hold the Biden administration accountable and demand [the Department of Homeland Security] end family detention nationwide,” he said. 

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