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The Fight to shut down Berks County Detention Center continues, after County Commissioners vote to convert the facility into a women's immigrant prison. Photo: Shut Down Berks Coalition Facebook Page
The Fight to shut down Berks County Detention Center continues, after County Commissioners vote to convert the facility into a women's immigrant prison. Photo: Shut Down Berks Coalition Facebook Page

“Elections have consequences,” activists, leaders vow ballot box revenge as Berks Commissioners vote to continue immigrant detention

Per a vote from the county commissioners, the Berks County Detention Center will continue detaining immigrants. But it could be politically costly.

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In late February of this year, all the families detained at the Berks County Detention Center were released to their loved ones or sponsors. 

It was a victory that came as a direct result of the relentless activism on behalf of a fierce group of activists, lawyers and community members called the Shut Down Berks Coalition. 

But as soon as  families were being released, Berks County Commissioners, specifically Christian Leinbach and Michael Rivera, began communications with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to convert the facility into an immigrant women’s prison. 

After months of refusing to publicize the details of these negotiations to county residents, a majority of whom do not wish to see any more immigrant detention in their neighborhoods, the commissioners took a vote concerning future use of the facility. 

The decision took place at the Berks County Courthouse, where residents, advocates and Pennsylvania elected officials gathered to demand that the commissioners vote “no” on converting the facility into another prison for immigrants. 

Residents and advocates rallied outside of the courthouse, while PA elected officials, such as PA Reps. Manuel Guzman, and Chris Rabb, convened on Zoom for a press conference. 

On Wednesday, July 28, elected Pennsylvania leaders delivered a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, demanding an end to the ICE contract in Berks County. 

The letter was signed by over 50 state and local representatives, including Sen. Maria Collett, Reps. Mary Jo Daley, Malcolm Kenyatta, and Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym. 

Guzman read the letter out loud during the Zoom conference. The officials stated their fierce opposition to new plans of detaining, processing, incarcerating and subjecting immigrant women or any others, to federal actions within the facility. 

In the letter, the officials brought up the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, located in Taylor, Texas. It was once a family detention center, and similar to Berks Detention Center, it has a documented history sexual abuse, retaliation, medical neglect and nutritional deprivation. 

Hutto Detention Center was converted into an immigrant women’s prison, and has been subject to “further inhumane treatment, isolation and separation from family and community.”

The shift from a family center to a women’s center did not stop the abuse, it simply changed who was subject to the harm. 

“Elections have consequences, and I wanna put you on notice,” Guzman said. 

If the commissioners vote to incarcerate women at Berks, Guzman made it very clear that the fight for freedom will go on, and the commissioners will not be let off the hook.

“We will knock on doors for your opponents, and we will help elect your opponents who believe it's time to shut down Berks,” he said. 

Despite hearing opposition from multiple community members before the final vote, the commissioners still voted “yes” to continuing immigrant detention in the county. 

The energy immediately shifted once the news of the vote spread. Advocates at the rally began emotionally charged speeches, expressing frustration over not being listened to. 

“These are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our loved ones,” one community member said, with a shaky voice. 

Rally participants began chanting the word “vergüenza,” which means “shame” in Spanish. But the group of concerned residents, activists and leaders were not easily defeated

Soon enough, spirits were lifted, as those outside the courthouse began singing in Spanish and chanting “the people united will never be defeated.” 

¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

“This fight is not over! This is a human rights issue. The Commissioners are governing in bad faith and they are not safe [in the next elections]. We will prevail!,” said Rep. Chris Rabb. 

Juana Mora, a leader from Make the Road PA, had a stark warning for all the commissioners come the next election cycle. 

“Today we received a stab from the people we elect. But NOW IS THE TIME TO FIGHT! You will not be elected forever,” Mora said. 

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