Faith leaders ask officials to close Berks detention center

     Unitarian-Universalists clergy and lay leaders from Reading and Philadelphia demonstrate outside the  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building on Callowhill Street. The group is protesting detention of undocumented mothers and children in the Berks County Family Detention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Unitarian-Universalists clergy and lay leaders from Reading and Philadelphia demonstrate outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building on Callowhill Street. The group is protesting detention of undocumented mothers and children in the Berks County Family Detention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Unitarian ministers from around Pennsylvania clustered outside the regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 16th and Callowhill in Philadelphia Tuesday.

    They came to deliver a petition bearing 450 signatures and calling for a “speedy end” to family detention centers, such as the one in Berks County.

    Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, is one of only three in the country to hold women and children who arrive in the U.S. without documentation.

    The Rev. Sandra Fees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County came from Reading to help present the petition to federal officials.

    While there needs to be a procedure for naturalizing immigrants, she said, locking them up isn’t the way. “Women and children and families who are seeking asylum in this country, who have faced violence, for all intents and purposes are being incarcerated,” said Fees.

    She and other members of a Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network  presented the petition to David O’Neil, ICE assistant field office director. He said he will share it with leaders of the Department of Human Services, which licenses the facility, as well as the director of ICE, Sarah Saldaña.

    The Rev. Kent Matthies of Germantown situated the detention center in the context of comprehensive immigration reform. While closing the center is important, he said, “immigration in America is the bigger conversation.”

    The same Berks Country facility was the subject of another protest in Philadelphia last month, this time at the Department of Human Services offices. In both cases, protesters referenced a recent court ruling out of California as justification for closure.

    Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that detention centers holding young people are in violation of standards set by a 1997 court case. Gee gave the Obama administration until Oct. 23 to act on her rule, but so far the numbers of those released have amounted to just a trickle.

    Pennsylvania DHS officials have said they are reviewing the license for the Berks County facility in light of Gee’s order.

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