Immigration rights activists are hailing a decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services threatening to not renew the license for a controversial family detention center in Berks County.
For nearly 15 years, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained refugee and immigrant families at the 96-bed Berks County Residential Center. But the center was originally licensed to operate only as a juvenile detention facility.
“If the county commits to cease its current use of the BCRC as a secure facility for refugee children and their families and provides a plan to transition the facility to a use that is consistent with its existing license, the Department will act on the current capacity increase request,” department Secretary Ted Dallas wrote in a letter to the facility. “Should the county choose not to transition the facility, the Department will take appropriate action including non-renewal of its existing license which expires in February 2016.”
Human rights lawyers, who have been pressing the state on that licensing discrepancy for months, were caught off guard by the announcement.
“I suspect they changed course because they saw that we were right,” says Philadelphia-based attorney Matthew Archambeault.
The center has been at the center of abuse and mistreatment allegations, including labor violations and a sexual assault involving a detainee.
“Their mission is for child welfare,” said Archambeault. “It is for the protection of children, and they were failing.”
The center did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, ICE officials said they are “currently reviewing the state’s correspondence and will determine the appropriate next steps.”
The facility has come under more scrutiny after a wave of migrant children from Central America crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last summer. Activists continue to pursue an immediate closure of the Berks center. It remains unclear whether detainees would be transferred or released if the license isn’t renewed.
“A lot of people who are in detention have families here that will support them and take them in as they fight their cases. So they should just be released to their families,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a nonprofit immigrant rights group in Philadelphia that has called for closing Berks. “There is no reason that anybody should be detained.”
Friday was the deadline stemming from a federal court case in which a district court judge ordered the U.S. to begin releasing immigrant families from holding centers. The government is reportedly appealing parts of the ruling.