Families moved from immigration detention centers in Texas to Pa., advocates say

    Undocumented women and children are being moved from two detention centers in Texas to a facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania, according to immigration advocates.

    Today advocates from JUNTOS, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and GALAEI rallied in Philadelphia, Reading and Leesport Monday to draw attention to ongoing detention in the Berks Family Residential Center.

    Just three detention centers contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold children and their mothers who enter the United States without documentation.

    In July, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the Texas detention centers have been holding children and their parents unlawfully, based on her interpretation of the 1997 case Flores vs. Meese. Pennsylvania advocates contend the ruling also applies to the Berks center.

    In that ruling, Gee wrote, children and their parents should be released within five days, although they may be held as long as 20 days.

    In September, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson stated that detaining families for immigration processing “is becoming short-term in most cases.”

    The detainment centers, he said, are becoming “processing centers where individuals can be interviewed and screened rather than detained for a prolonged period of time.”

    Reading immigration lawyer Bridget Cambria said that when the Gee ruling took effect in October, she and other lawyers began to notice more transfers.

    “When families would hit about the two-week, 17-day mark in Texas facilities, they would transfer them to Berks,” if there were an open bed, she said. Otherwise, many would be deported.

    ICE is “sort of using the judge’s order to say we’ll release the families but the way we’ll release them is through deportation,” she said.

    Cambria represents more than 10 families in the Berks Family Residential Center. In some cases, she said, families are not told they are being transferred and believe they are being deported or reunited with their families.

    In a statement, ICE public information officer Sarah Maxwell said, “Family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration screening and processing or await return to their home countries.”

    ICE officials did not respond directly to the question of whether they are transferring families from the Texas facilities to Berks when the stays of those families exceed the time limit set by the Gee ruling. Instead, moving families is framed as a normal part of immigration proceedings.

    Earlier this year, a report by international human rights organization Human Rights First found the facility lacked mental health services in Spanish and consistent access to legal counsel.

    An internal evaluation of the Berks Family Residential Center by ICE staff found the facility was noncompliant in the areas of sexual assault and suicide prevention.

    Pennsylvania advocates have argued that the Berks facility violates both federal and state law. In October, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas issued a statement warning that if the center did not end its use as a “secure facility for refugee children and their families,” the state would not renew its license as a child residential facility.

    That license runs out in February.

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