Amid licensing limbo, immigration advocates push to shut down Pa. detention center

Immigrants' rights advocates have launched two initiatives, trying to pressure the state government to close down the detention center.

Berks County Residential Center.  (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

More than two years after Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas announced the department would not renew its license, the Berks Family Residential Center is still housing dozens of families awaiting decisions about their immigration cases.

Immigrants’ rights advocates have launched two initiatives this month, trying to pressure the state government to close down the detention center, which is located outside of Reading.

The first tactic is public shaming.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of faith-based and immigrants’ rights groups, is soliciting video messages from supporters, pleading with Gov. Tom Wolf to close the facility immediately. Under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, Berks County operates the center, which holds an average of around 30 families — usually a single parent with children — at a time.

“They come here to escape persecution, to come to freedom, just to be put behind bars? That’s not the American way, that’s not fair,” 30-year-old Miguel Dalmau says in one video. Dalmau said because he “grew up undocumented” after fleeing Honduras with his mother, he empathizes with the parents and children in the Center.

In each message, petitioners ask Wolf to call for emergency removals of residents, an extreme measure allowed by state statute if an agency “finds evidence of gross incompetence, negligence, misconduct in operating the facility or agency, or mistreatment or abuse of clients, likely to constitute an immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the clients.”

“If there is an abusive situation, it is their job to end the abuse,” said organizer Jasmine Rivera. Critics of the center point to the 2016 rape conviction of a guard, and allegations of poor medical care as grounds for this kind of intervention.

“The Department of Human Services (PA DHS) has investigated every allegation [about the center] presented and to date has not found cause that would warrant emergency closure,” said the department’s press secretary, Colin Day.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor believes the center should no longer detain these families, and he supports revoking the center’s license.

The center’s license expired in Feb. 2016. When PA DHS announced it would not be renewing it, Berks County filed an administrative appeal to keep it and the local jobs it creates. The county won that appeal in 2017, only to have the state ask for a reconsideration. As the licensing fight stretches beyond two years, and the center continues to hold families, immigration advocates hope a new maneuver can speed it  toward a resolution: getting their lawyers involved.

Families previously and currently detained at the center, along with ALDEA – the People’s Justice Center, a pro bono immigration law firm, have filed a petition to intervene in the ongoing licensing case. That case is currently in an administrative process in front of PA DHS’ Bureau of Hearings and Appeals with no clear timeline to proceed.

“[The case] just keeps bouncing around like a ping pong ball, and doesn’t get to any resolution where you can actually see what’s going to happen to these kids,” said ALDEA attorney Bridget Cambria.

In their petition, detainees and their attorneys say PA DHS did not sufficiently advocate for the needs of the families held at Berks, citing the fact that no past or present detainees were called as witnesses during hearings as proof.

It will be up to one of PA DHS’ own administrative judges to decide whether or not these attorneys can join the fray.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal