Berks County protests lead to arrests over detention center

Authorities in Berks County on Sunday arrested 17 demonstrators who were among hundreds of protesters calling for the closure of a family detention center that holds children and parents who are seeking asylum or entered the country illegally.

Police say most of those arrested, members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of faith-based and immigrants’ rights groups, have been released and are now facing criminal charges of failure to disperse, which could carry the penalty of jail time and fees.

Bern Township Police Chief Wesley Waugh said the 17 protesters were taken into custody after obstructing a nearby highway.

“The particular area where they were located was outside of the designated protest area, and the arrests were the result of not adhering to the boundaries of that established area,” Waugh said.

Berks County police officers stand by as a group of eighteen protesters link arms while seated in the road outside of the Berks County Residential Center on July 15. Despite being told that they would risk arrest, the demonstrators decided to sit anyway.
Berks County police officers stand by as a group of eighteen protesters link arms while seated in the road outside of the Berks County Residential Center on July 15. Despite being told that they would risk arrest, the demonstrators decided to sit anyway. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Before they were arrested, the band of protesters staged a sit-in on Berks Road with arms linked, which, Waugh said, blocked a lane and exit to the facility and created a public safety hazard.

Across the street, a group of men and children who are detained at the facility made an appearance, gathering in a fenced-off lawn not far from what police said was a crowd of about 300 demonstrators. One of the children, sitting on the shoulders of one of the men, waved an American flag. Another held up with both hands a homemade Honduran flag. Others looked on to the crowd of protesters on bicycles.

The showdown with police was the latest demonstration in front of the Berks County Residential Center, one of three family detention centers in the U.S. that hold immigrant families. Calls for the facilities to be shuttered have intensified since the Trump administration began enforcing its “zero tolerance” policy on people crossing the Southwest border.

The low-security facility northwest of Philadelphia is operated by the county through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility houses about 30 families – typically a single parent with children. Two other family detention facilities, both in Texas, also house families who the government has determined need to be detained for more than a few weeks after being apprehended crossing the border.

These centers have been the target of protests, lawsuits and petitions since President Barack Obama expanded the use of them in 2014. The issue of housing migrant family for indefinite periods was thrust back in the news with Trump’s now-rescinded family separation policy. And with courts rejecting the administration’s attempt of confining families for long periods, officials are struggling to find easy solutions to reunifying migrant children with their families.

A group of immigrants detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, respond to a protest of the detention center across the street from the facility on the afternoon of July 15. At center, a young boy smiles and waves an American flag.
A group of immigrants detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, respond to a protest of the detention center across the street from the facility on the afternoon of July 15. At center, a young boy smiles and waves an American flag. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Back in Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf has supported immediately closing down the Berks facility, including revoking the center’s license. Yet since the site is under contract with the federal government, Wolf said there is little else in his power he can do to close down the controversial detention facility.

Activists have pleaded with Wolf to issue an emergency removal order that could trigger the closure of the site, but Pennsylvania Department of Human Services officials say that there exists no “cause that would warrant emergency closure.”

Some of those who have spent time at Berks share a different view.

“Mr. Governor Wolf,” a man who is identified as a father formerly detained at the Berks site addresses viewers from a Facebook video posted by the Shut Down Berks Coalition. “Close House Berks, where many parents, many mothers have had their rights restricted and especially, much more those of children.”

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