Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) revoked the license for a controversial facility where detained undocumented children and their families are held on behalf of the federal government. Without a new license, it was expected to be shut by now, but DHS says it is allowed to stay open because of an appeal.
Berks County, which operates the 95-bed Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) under contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), appealed DHS’ decision to close the center, calling it “capricious” and unfair.
While the appeal is pending, the center will continue to detain families, including infants as young as 20 months, according to ICE and DHS.
In January, DHS announced it planned to revoke the center’s license for 2016-2017, on the grounds that center is operating beyond what it is certified to do. DHS issued childcare licenses to the center, but said that holding entire families is not allowed.
In the appeal, Berks representatives argue that DHS knew the center detained families and had in fact approved of that use for years.
“Not only did it inspect and license BCRC every year, but BCRC made specific requests for waivers…based on servicing family units, which were acknowledged and approved by DHS,” reads the appeal. Based on this history, it says the center should be allowed to operate as before.
Immigration advocates say that argument is weak and there are grounds to shut down the center during an appeal.
“Their argument boils down to…we’ve been mistreating people and violating a license that’s supposed to be protecting people for so long we should be allowed to violate people’s human rights because we’ve been doing it,” said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.
Juntos, another activist group, has cited examples where DHS shutdown facilities it licenses while appeals are heard and is calling for that to happen here. In cases of documented abuse or impropriety, DHS has ordered nursing homes to shut down and they say the same standard should apply here.
Advocates have been fighting to shut the center down, based on accounts of poor or nonexistent medical treatment and abuse by center staff.
The Berks County Residential Center is one of only three places in the country that holds children while federal immigration officers decide if they can stay in this country.
To draw attention to the continued incarceration of families at the Berks facility, activists are rallying in Philadelphia and Leesport, Berks County, on February 22nd, the day after the center’s license expires.
How long the appeal will last — and its impact on the center’s business — is unclear.
“We have a pre-hearing conference date set for March 1, at that point we will learn more about the schedule,” said DHS press secretary Kait Gillis in a statement.