Berks Co. immigrant detention center reopens as women-only facility

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

A Berks County detention center for immigrant families that emptied out last year has reopened, this time detaining only adult women, according to immigration attorneys working in the Reading area.

Jackie Kline, immigration attorney with the pro bono legal clinic Aldea – People’s Justice Center, said they began receiving calls from women who U.S. immigration authorities had transferred into the Berks County Residential Center as of last week.

“From what we understand, the majority of the women are recent border entrants, and are a mix of Haitian, Roma and Spanish-speaking women,” said Kline.

County officials declined to comment, and referred all requests to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. Following publication, ICE confirmed that the “Berks County Facility transitioned from family detention and is now a female-only detention facility effective Jan. 3,” in an emailed statement.

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As of February 8, 2022, there were 35 women transferred from the Southwest border in custody at the Berks Center, per the agency. They also confirmed and elaborated on where the women traveled from, saying most are originally from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Romania.

The new use of the county-run facility is the latest chapter in a years-long tussle between advocates seeking to permanently close the center, and the county and federal government, who argue the center creates jobs and is a necessary part of the country’s immigration apparatus.

For more than a decade, the center had been one of three places where U.S. immigration enforcement would detain families with children.

In early 2021, the BCRC released the final seven families held there to sponsors while they awaited decisions on their cases for asylum. The Biden Administration announced plans to turn the other two, both in Texas, into “reception centers” that would aim to hold families for only a few days, before eventually converting them to adult detention centers.

Just weeks later, details of an alternate plan emerged, indicating that the Berks County Commissioners were open to reopening the center to hold women or families, and to expanding the capacity of the 96-bed facility.

The new contract with ICE brings in $1,033,000 annually to Berk County, about $55,000 less than the amount it received for detaining immigrant families, WITF has reported.

Immigrants’ rights advocates have long argued that detention is not necessary, or humane, because immigrants who seek asylum in the United States have not committed a crime. Crossing the U.S. border without permission is a civil, not criminal, offense.

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The Biden Administration has increasingly turned to alternatives to detention, such as using ankle monitors and mandatory phone check-ins, for families that it may have previously detained. The number of family units in such programs rose from 58,608 in September 2019 to 87,063 in January 2022, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with Syracuse University.

However, single-adults are still being held by the tens of thousands. As of January 2022, 20,886 immigrants were held across all of ICE’s facilities, according to TRAC.

“We’re really angry and we’re disappointed that [the federal government] had 11 months to close this detention center when it was empty,” said Adrianna Torres-García, program coordinator with the Free Migration Project, as well as a member of the Shut Down Berks Committee. “We’re just calling on President Biden to … let these women go and shut this down,” she continued.

She and Kline both pointed to the long history of medical abuse at immigrant detention centers, most recently reports that women in a Georgia facility received unnecessary gynecological care, including forced sterilization. In 2015, a former staffer at BCRC was convicted of sexually assaulting a mother there.

Efforts to minimize immigration detention ramped up under the Obama and Trump Administrations. County jails in northern New Jersey and York County, Pennsylvania, ended their contracts with ICE last year. That resulted in transfers of detainees from the Bergen, Essex, and Hudson County facilities in New Jersey, and ICE contracting with a much larger federal prison facility, the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, in Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania.

WITF’s Anthony Orozco contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to reflect comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the number of women currently detained at the Berks County Residential Center.

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