‘Libertad,’ the fight to Shut Down Berks goes to Independence Mall
Demonstrators gathered on Saturday, Sept. 25 alongside art made by Michelle Angela Ortiz to support their message.
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When the last immigrant families left the Berks County Residential Center in February, activists who fought for years to close down the facility celebrated a well-earned victory, but feared that it might reopen.
As events unfolded over the last few months, it turns out that their concerns were justified. Berks County Commissioners deliberated in secret on their plans to transform the center into a women’s prison for immigrants.
This plan goes directly against what many community members actually want to see happen at the center. Firstly, the community does not want any more immigrants detained in their neighborhood, and they want to see the space converted into a health services center.
On Saturday, Sept. 25, about 100 people assembled on Independence Mall to protest the new plans for the facility. The commissioners voted last month to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use the detention center to detain women seeking asylum.
TODAY! Join us at Independence Hall (next to the Liberty Bell) at 2pm in Phila as we demand Pres Biden end the ICE contract in Berks Co. We don't need more prisons - we need human services. We say NO to a women's prison! https://t.co/QEpHSc9pJi#CommunitiesNotCages #ShutDownBerks pic.twitter.com/JVr8Y3EnF4— Shut Down Berks Coalition (@ShutDownBerks) September 25, 2021
“We believe that no one should be incarcerated for being a migrant,” said Adrianna Torres-García, program coordinator for the Free Migration Project.
“There’s absolutely no reason for Pennsylvania to be complicit in the immoral act of immigrant detention,” she said.
Activists have long denounced the living conditions at the facility and argued that asylum-seekers should be released to live with family members or sponsors in the community.
At Saturday’s demonstration, speakers emphasized that their objective is to see the facility shut down completely, not transition detaining another population of immigrants.
They spoke in front of a massive poster that spelled out “libertad,” (freedom) in more than 1,000 paper flowers, a piece by the artist Michelle Angela Ortiz.
Happening now at Independence Mall, my installation “Flores de Libertad”made by mothers detained at the Berks prison in PA is supporting @ShutDownBerks as they fight to shut down Berks. This action is part of the National action to shut down detention centers in the US. pic.twitter.com/fYB54r3YN6— Michelle Angela (@michelleaortiz1) September 25, 2021
The flowers were folded by two women Ortiz visited at Berks, who were detained there for over a year. Protesters shouted “Shut down Berks,” and “¡Sí se puede!” (Yes we can!)
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County, an avid supporter of the fight to shut down Berks detention center, told protesters that she and fellow legislators have been having “renewed conversations” with Gov. Tom Wolf, Berks County commissioners, and the Biden administration.
Dean said she has requested a copy of the county’s new contract with ICE and has written to President Joe Biden demanding the center stay closed.
State Rep. Chris Rabb also spoke at the rally, saying that he showed up “not as a Democrat,” but as a father and someone who loves justice,” and pushed advocates to continue their efforts by protesting at the state Capitol as well.
“I was the first elected from Philadelphia to visit Berks. It was soul-crushing,” Rabb said.
Activists who spoke said they were let down by the Biden administration’s approach to immigration issues, from the decision to reopen the Berks facility, to the horrifying images that emerged of Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian refugees in the Texas border, and the mass deportations that followed.
Steve Paul, the cofounder of Haitian-American Voice and an employee at the political strategy organization State Innovation Exchange, told rally attendees that he fled fighting in Haiti with his family at nine years old.
“As a Black man, as an immigrant, I know not one political party is going to create a situation that pushes for liberation. But I worked to get Biden elected,” he said. “Now we’re saying, we’re going to hold you accountable.”
“We are demanding real change: shut down Berks, shut down immigrant detention centers everywhere in the U.S., invest in providing real services to our communities,” Torres-García wrote on Sept. 27 in an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer.