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On April 15, a group of protesters held a vigil outside of the Berks County Residential Center calling for the release of families being held there. (Provided by supporters of the Shut Down Berks Coalition)
On April 15, a group of protesters held a vigil outside of the Berks County Residential Center calling for the release of families being held there. (Provided by supporters of the Shut Down Berks Coalition)

The truth about the Berks County Residential Center

The controversial immigrant detention center located outside of Philadelphia has been called a “prison for children.”

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May 27th, 2022

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It’s difficult to believe that in the year 2018, a federally funded institution that imprisons young children indefinitely is allowed to exist in the U.S.

The Berks County Residential Center is located in Leesport, Pa., about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The facility is operated by the county through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is one of only three immigrant detention centers in the country that holds children with their parents.

However, what sets Berks apart from these other two institutions, which are both located in Texas, is that there is no limit to how long families can be detained there. Some people have been known to become stuck in legal limbo at the center for up to two years or longer, according to reports.

Many of these families are detained because they are seeking asylum from violence in the Central American countries of their origin. Today, advocates for shutting down the center say that it holds about 30 families.

A growing list of grievances
In 2016, a group of mothers detained at Berks participated in a hunger strike after Jeh Johnson, then Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claimed that the average length of stay at immigrant family detention centers in the U.S. was 20 days or less. These women contended that some families held at the time at Berks had been there for nearly a year.

“On many occasions our children have thought about suicide because of the confinement and desperation that is caused by being here,” read a letter sent by 22 women detained at Berks in Aug. 2016, as reported by The Guardian.

Beyond the unacceptable amount of time that children, women, and men have been held at the center, protesters of Berks have taken issue with a number of other factors and allegations regarding the facility.

According to a report by NBC10 last year, the facility can house up to 96 people and each bedroom at the center contains six to eight beds. Critics say these conditions create an inappropriate environment for children.

“There are examples of a father and his daughter sharing a room with mothers and their children,” Bridget Cambria, a pro bono attorney who represented detainees at Berks, told NBC10. “Where else is that allowed?” 

There have also been instances of inadequate medical attention for children detained at the center. In one example, as reported by AL DÍA in 2016, a mother held at Berks waited three months after requesting a medical evaluation for her 5-year-old daughter before her child was finally seen by a doctor.

The child, who was suffering from bouts of diarrhea, was ultimately diagnosed with Shigellosis, an infectious disease that can cause outbreaks, especially among young children. 

Sexual misconduct by staff at Berks has also been a problem. According to a 2017 report from NBC10, one staff member pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman and spent five months in Berks County Prison for his crime. His sentence was shorter than the amount of time the Honduran woman he was convicted of assaulting spent at the Berks County Residential Center, which was eight months.

The above examples provide only a glimpse of the many concerns that have been raised regarding conditions at the facility.

Demanding a shutdown

For years, calls to shut down the Berks County Residential Center have come from platforms big and small, from Philadelphia advocacy groups Juntos and GALAEI to high profile politicians such as Bernie Sanders. While running for president in 2016, the senator from Vermont said during a campaign event in Reading, Pa., that the time had come for the facility to close its doors.

“The government should not be in the painful and inhumane business of locking up families who have fled unspeakable violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries throughout the world," Sanders said. "Instead, we should treat these families with the compassion, the dignity and the respect they deserve."

Sen. Bob Casey has urged the DHS under President Donald Trump to close the center and Gov. Tom Wolf has sought the revocation of the facility’s license, pressing the DHS to move the detained families into community settings. 

Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, raised the issue during an AL DÍA Forum with fellow candidates on April 11.

“We are never more un-American than when we are persecuting the Americanness of immigrants, and it’s outrageous,” Fetterman said during the forum. “And it’s despicable that we have a family detention center here in our own commonwealth, in Berks County, that imprisons children along with their parents.”

The following Sunday, Fetterman joined about 30 protesters at a vigil held outside of the center calling for the release of the families being held there. His campaign has also started an online petition to shut down the facility.

With so many condemning the existence of Berks County Residential Center, it’s not surprising that the DHS declined to renew the facility’s child residential license in 2016. However, a judge ordered the license restored the following year. During this legal back-and-forth, the center has continued to operate and now an administrative law judge is considering whether or not the center qualifies for the license, according to a report this month from NBC10.

According to the same report, Aldea - The People’s Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal services, filed a petition this month in the case to intervene on behalf of residents of the center, both former and current, to present evidence that will support the facility’s closure.

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