As immigration debate boils, Philly nonprofit sends books to detention center

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A converted storefront in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market buzzed with activity Thursday afternoon, as a group of Spanish-speaking boys and girls gathered to add a personal touch to a special book delivery.

With the help of a $3,000 grant, Mighty Writers, a nonprofit with a mission to turn students into stronger scribes, is giving more than a hundred books to children at the Berks County Residential Center, a federal detention facility for families awaiting decisions on their immigration cases.

And because every good book needs a good bookmark, leaders of the Mighty Writer’s El Futuro program carved out a chunk of time for students to channel their creativity into blank slips of paper to accompany the books going to Berks.

Some of them had hearts and trees. Others featured swatches of bright color.

“I did shades of pink. I like pink because it makes me feel positive,” said 11-year-old Yaretzy. WHYY has agreed to withhold her and the other children’s last names because some members of their families are undocumented immigrants.

Still other bookmarks had messages of hope.

“I wrote keep calm and read on. Believe in yourself,” said Alma, 11, as a World Cup match hummed on nearby television.

The 11-year-old said she participated in the project because she liked the idea of giving children at Berks a chance to relax and learn. She also wanted them to know there’s someone thinking about them.

“I know I don’t know them very well, but I have a connection with them because they’re like my family. All immigrants – everyone – we’re all family no matter what,” she said.

More than 20 children are living with their fathers at the detention center, a roughly two-hour drive from Philadelphia.

Almost all of them are from Central America – either Guatemala or Honduras — which is why all of these brand-new books are in Spanish.

If everything goes according to plan, the books will be delivered early next week, though it’s already been delayed once.

Mighty Writers executive director Tim Whitaker is looking forward to that moment, whenever it happens. For him, the books represent a way to take action during a tumultuous period for U.S. immigration policy, and, hopefully, to help put the children detained at Berks at ease.

“Maybe having a book in their hand with pictures of children who look like themselves or a book they might have had back in their country where they came from, maybe that’ll provide some comfort or relief,” he said. “And that seems like a good idea.”

The delivery comes as activists, lawyers, and lawmakers continue a fight to shut down the Berks facility amid an ongoing license dispute and advocates’ concerns about conditions for families housed at the center. Meanwhile, tension continues over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy at the U.S. border with Mexico, which led to more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents before the president reversed course on the separation policy last week.

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