Immigration rights advocates are calling on the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to close a detention center in Berks County, where they say children as young as 11 days old are held illegally.
Standing outside of a Philadelphia municipal building on Arch Street, about a dozen supporters from local immigration rights groups held up signs with slogans like “Libertad” and “The wall is tall. Our freedom is higher.”
The group consisted of activists from Juntos, PA Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network (UUPLAN), and Migrant Power Movement (MPM), as well as immigration attorneys from Reading and Temple University’s Sheller Center for Social Justice. They have banded together to pressure for ending the practice of detaining children for immigration violations.
Rhiannon DiClementi, a third year law student representing the Sheller Center, said the Berks County Detention Center violates both Pennsylvania and federal law.
“Children and families have been detained in Berks unlawfully, for weeks, months, even a year at time,” said Clementi. Under Pennsylvania law, children under nine may not be detained, and minors cannot be detained without a court order. Neither of those are the case at Berks, according to Clementi.
“The last issue is a federal issue,” she said. “Children can’t be detained in secure facility for [over] three to five days.” Many report staying much longer.
Jackie Kline, a Reading-based immigration attorney who has represented “over 100” detainees, echoed the unlawfulness of the detentions.
“The heartbreaking thing is the legal thing is for these refugees to come to the country and apply for asylum, and we’re putting them in prisons,” she said.
Kline also shared how the 11 day-old infant could end up in the facility.The rationale, she said, is “Oh, they came as a family unit, therefore we have to do this.” She said that particular child was also delayed in receiving medical attention and formula when his mother was too stressed to produce milk.
Stories like these are the fuel for the push to end detaining child migrants and refugees. At the rally, Juntos’ Erika Almiron and Jasmine Rivera delivered a copy of a report by non-profit organization Human Rights First to the Philadelphia DHS office.
The report, out last month, points out various human rights violations at Berks — from a lack of mental health care in Spanish to unfair “obstacles to release and counsel,” resulting in lengthy stays.
Almiron and Rivera asked the local head of DHS to review the report and share it with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services, Ted Dallas, who they say has the power to revoke the license for the Berks County Detention Center. They ask him to do just that.
Berks only one of three centers to detain children nationally
The Berks County Detention Center is one of three facilities in the country – the other two are in Texas – that holds immigrant children and their mothers in “secure facilities.” Critics say this amounts to imprisonment. An estimated 1,700 parents and their children are currently being held across the three centers, detained by federal agents in conjunction with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The center, which opened in 2001, was initially greenlighted as a way to bring more revenue into the Berks County, according to the Reading Eagle. It has a license to hold 96 people, far fewer than the Texas facillities, but plans to expand to 191 people by the end of this summer.
Last year, the number of detainees across the country, particularly minors and women with young children, skyrocketed as waves of unaccompanied chidlren from Central America poured through the United State’s southern borders. The Obama administration took a tougher stance against these migrants, holding more children and families in secure facilities instead of releasing them.
In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the two Texas facilities failed to meet minimum standards for housing immigrant children set by a 1997 precedent set by Flores vs. Meese. Gee also ordered the centers to release parents and children held there.
So far, the facilities have let go a trickle of detainees and some immigration advocates have criticized the process as lacking any policy or structural basis, reported the Texas Tribune.
As for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, spokesperson Kait Gillis shared the following in an emailed statement.
“We’re currently reviewing their license in light of a recent court decision that has been made affecting this facility and similar facilities in Texas. We hope to make an announcement as soon as that review is complete.”
Gillis declined to answer specific questions.