Lawyers, civic groups keep the pressure on Berks Family Residential Center

A new lawsuit focuses on the secrecy of plans for the Berks County immigrant detention facility, but the conflict remains the same.

ALDEA executive director Bridget Cambria reviews work of communications and intake assistant Nathalia Cruz in ALDEA's downtown Reading office. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

ALDEA executive director Bridget Cambria reviews work of communications and intake assistant Nathalia Cruz in ALDEA's downtown Reading office. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

The Berks Family Residential Center in Bern Township is no longer detaining immigrant families — a development credited to a change in immigration policy under President Joe Biden.

But the facility isn’t closed. It’s just waiting for what’s next.

Some say it should be used as an opioid treatment center or a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site. Instead, the federal government may turn it into a holding center for migrant women, according to an unnamed source at the U.S. Department of Homeland security cited by The Washington Post.

In February, Berks commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a letter of support for a proposal from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the center’s future. But there was no public discussion, and neither the commissioners nor the agency released any details about ICE’s plan — prompting a lawsuit by immigrant advocacy groups.

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New battle, same war

The possible change into a women’s detention center is unwelcomed by immigration lawyer Bridget Cambria.

“To choose women as their next fallback is sort of like a slap in the face, because those women need resources, not jails,” Cambria said.

Cambria is the executive director of the Reading-based nonprofit legal assistance group ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center.

ALDEA provides pro bono or low-cost legal representation to immigrant detainees, many times fighting to get them released to family in the U-S while their asylum cases play out in court. It is also part of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which aims to close the detention facility and is now pushing for more transparency from the county.

Civic groups protest outside the Berks County Services Center calling for county commissioners to end Berks’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

ALDEA, several other immigrant advocacy organizations and Temple Law School’s Sheller Center for Social Justice filed the lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners. They allege the commissioners are violating the state’s Sunshine Law by not sharing information about the plans for the center.

At a Feb. 25 commissioners meeting, the commissioners approved a letter of support for a “white paper proposal” for an updated use for the center.

Berks Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach and Berks’ first Latino commissioner, Michael Rivera, approved the letter. The board’s lone Democrat, Kevin Barnhardt, opposed the plan. The motion and votes were done with no discussion. The county also denied the Right-To-Know requests of WITF and other news outlets for materials related to the vote.

The complaint, filed in the state’s court of common pleas, claims the commissioners “prevented the public from having a reasonable opportunity to comment, and engaged in private deliberations.”

The Berks County Commissioners did not reply to a request for comment on the lawsuit this week.

Women lawyers lead the charge

ALDEA was formed in 2015 by Cambria and Jacqueline Klein, who were already partners of their own practice.

They and fellow immigration lawyer Carol Anne Donohoe were recognized with Immigration Law Pro Bono Award by the Pennsylvania Bar association for their work with asylum-seeking families in the center in 2016. Donohoe, who lives in Pennsylvania, is with Al Otro Lado, a California-based nonprofit.

Donohoe is the managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s family reunification project, which aims to reconnect children and parents separated under the Trump Administration. Donohoe and Al Otro Lado are also parties in the complaint against the county.

ALDEA’s programs coordinator, Adriana Zambrano, recently joined a group of protestors outside the Berks County Services Building in Reading.

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Zambrano repeated requests from other Berks County residents who have voiced their support to change the detention center into a place that could help taxpayers, such as an opioid treatment center or county health department.

“We will not accept them turning the Berks County Residential Center into a women’s prison or any kind of prison,” Zambrano said. “Instead of that, we need human services in this county; we need attention for the most vulnerable people in this county.”

Women migrants as detainees

Women asylum seekers will likely be a difficult population to house, Cambria said, because of their needs due to trauma they have survived.

Detained women asylum seekers are often separated from their children and often survivors of gender-based violence, even when in custody, she said.

Last year, Berks County paid a $75,000 settlement to a Honduran mother who was sexually assaulted by a worker in the facility. That worker was convicted of institutional sexual abuse.

After the accusations came out against the worker, ICE issued a new dress code in the center, which immigrant advocates criticized as victim blaming.

Many detained mothers have claimed lack of medical treatment in the center, even though the center having its own medical facilities. Others have alleged a lack of COVID-19 precautions, emotional distress and regular bed checks throughout the night.

ICE’s record of detaining women in other locations is marred with myriad accusations of abuse, mistreatment and neglect.

The T. Don Hutto center in Texas, transitioned from a family detention center to a women-only center in 2009. Multiple women there reported sexual abuses in 2010.

In December, more than 40 women alleged in federal court that they were abused by a gynecologist in Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.

Two decades of detention

Berks Commissioners Chair Christian Leinbach has not wavered in his defense of the center’s workers and the quality of care given to the asylum-seeking families detained there.

“If there was anything even remotely close to the accusations and lies and distortions [immigrant advocates] claim, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would have easily been able to close this facility a long time ago,” Leinbach said in response to public comments calling for the closure of the center in a March commissioners meeting. “The reality is, we have staff and employees that take their responsibilities very seriously.

A 12-hour protest was held in front of the Berks County Residential Center on July 17, 2020, calling for the release of immigrant families detained inside. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

The center is unique in several ways. It was the first and smallest of only three family detention centers in the country. It’s the only one outside of Texas and the only one owned and staffed by a local government.

The center opened in 2001 to hold undocumented immigrants with their children for three to six weeks as they waited to be granted asylum or deported.

The contract between Berks County and the federal government was at that time continuation of years of cooperation in which Berks detained juvenile undocumented immigrants since the 1990s.

Inside, the 96-bed the center looks more like an assisted living facility than a prison. County and federal officials regularly tout the schooling and on-site medical facilities as examples of how well detainees are cared for.

In 2014, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson detailed the expansion of family detention policy.

In internal memos he described it as a part of “an aggressive deterrence strategy.” That strategy included expedited deportations and indefinite detentions.

“We had then 34,000 beds for family detention, only 95 of 34,000 equipped to deal with families. So, we extended it,” Johnson said in a 2018 Fox news interview. “I freely admit it was controversial. We believed it was necessary at the time.”

In 2016, the state Department of Human Services attempted to take away the center’s license to house children, saying it was not truly operating as a child residential center, as the license intends.

It was a blemish on the image of the facility, but did nothing to halt operations.

Then-State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a scathing report on the facility in 2019.

“Seeking to become a productive resident of the United States is not only not illegal, but actually something we should be encouraging,” Depasquale said. “Yet these families are being held in a secure facility that has a documented history of human rights violations and sexual assault.”

And in recent years, family detention has been under fire for circumventing the proper asylum processes.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration ultimately said only the feds could shut down the center, if the county was not going to.

National spotlight

The Biden Administration is still trying to find its footing on immigration. The southern border is again a focus of national attention with thousands of asylum seekers hoping to enter the county.

With the backdrop of debate about how the U.S. can or should take in asylum-seeking children and families during a global health pandemic, the Berks center’s possible transformation is unique in itself.

The other two privately-owned family detention facilities in Texas are being rebranded as “reception centers.” Federal officials said they will hold families who are being screened for COVID-19 and setting living arrangements inside the U.S.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of Penn State’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, said she is wary of recycling detention facilities, whether that is in Berks or Texas.

“When I read words like repurpose or retool, that give me pause,” Wadhia said. “Because really what we should be doing is reimagining what our system looks like.”

Wadhia and Cambria emphasize that detention is selective and not necessary.

Cambria said detention in general is harmful to families.

“The hardest part I think was for the families themselves is to never know, ‘Am I leaving today? Am I not leaving today, and what the heck’s going to happen to me,’” Cambria said. “And the facility perpetuates that, that constant fear and that constant harm.”

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