In Pennsylvania, a border ‘meltdown’ looks like empty beds at Berks Center

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A group of immigrants detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, respond to a protest of the detention center occurring across the street from the facility on the afternoon of July 15. On the left, a man holds a handmade drawing of the Honduran flag. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

A group of immigrants detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, respond to a protest of the detention center occurring across the street from the facility on the afternoon of July 15. On the left, a man holds a handmade drawing of the Honduran flag. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wrote to Congress last week to ask for assistance, saying the number of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border had caused a “system-wide meltdown.”

As that letter was delivered, almost all of the beds inside of the Berks Family Residential Center, one of the country’s three family immigrant detention centers, sat open.

“It’s strange,” said immigration attorney Jackie Kline, whose law firm represents families in the facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania. “We are hearing this narrative… [that] there’s not bed space for family units in the United States, and yet we’re seeing extremely low numbers.”

Berks, located 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is a former senior living facility that was converted to house immigrants on behalf of the federal government in 2001. Family immigration detention ramped up during the Obama administration, with two larger facilities in Texas coming online in 2012 and 2014.

Now, Trump administration officials say they are no longer routing families into the centers as before, due to the volume of arrivals, “limited transportation resources,” and regulations requiring that children stay in detention for no more than 20 days.

Recent news stories have highlighted the current strain on family processing at the U.S. border, including accounts of families held under a bridge in El Paso; children dying after being taken into U.S. custody; and immigrants released to overwhelmed nonprofit organizations or at bus stations.

Instead of holding some families, federal immigration authorities are now releasing nearly all of them, sometimes more than a 1,000 people a day in the Rio Grande Valley alone, according to ICE officials. Kline said those trickling into Berks now are more likely to be from India or members of Europe’s Roma minority than from Central America and were picked up at airports or arrested in the interior of the country.

That means most detention beds go unfilled.

As of March 29, ICE officials said Berks had nine residents in the 96-bed facility. The Karnes County Residential Center, located southeast of San Antonio, Texas and which has a capacity of 830 people, had 63 residents. ICE officials said as of April 1, it would be converting most of that facility into a detention center for single immigrant women.

Even when the number of family arrivals at the border was lower under both Obama and Trump, most did not wind up in detention centers either. Placement seemed a matter of chance, whether a center happened to have room when a family arrived. But this wholescale turn away from family immigrant detention is new.

“My guess is they’re saying, ‘We’re releasing so many people, what’s the value of putting people in Berks?’” said Kevin Landy, who was appointed ICE assistant director responsible for the Office of Detention Policy and Planning under President Obama.

In light of the number of families crossing the border now, “Berks is a drop in the bucket,” Landy said.

In February, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended around 76,000 individuals at ports of entry or crossing in between them, according to official estimates. More than half of arrivals were unaccompanied immigrant children or families.

In her letter, Nielsen wrote current systems, set up to process mostly single men, are not capable of fielding this many “vulnerable” immigrants, and called for legislation that would allow the U.S. to deport children traveling alone faster, and detain families longer.

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