Berks County center criticized for asylum detention methods

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Activists rally at the Philadelphia office of Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas on Monday to deliver a report alleging deficiencies at the Berks County Residential Center.

The immigrant-rights group Juntos, supported by members of Temple University's Sheller Center for Social Justice, has called on Pennsylvania to revoke the operating license of a Leesport facility where parents and their children are incarcerated pending asylum proceedings.

Citing a recent report by Human Rights First, an international advocacy group, which alleged health and welfare deficiencies at Pennsylvania's Berks County Residential Center, a dozen activists rallied outside a Center City office building Monday and delivered the report to a representative of Ted Dallas, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services secretary.

Dallas "has the power to revoke this license and release these families," said Juntos organizer Jasmine Rivera. "We call upon him to do so immediately."

In a statement later, a spokeswoman for Dallas said his office was reviewing the license in light of a recent court decision "affecting this facility and similar facilities in Texas. We hope to make an announcement as soon as that review is complete."

The 96-bed Berks facility, subcontracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is among the nation's three family detention centers, including two in Texas, with a combined capacity of 3,000 immigrants.

Rhiannon DiClemente, of Elverson, Pa., a third-year student at Temple University's Beasley School of Law and participant in its social justice lawyering clinic, said the Berks facility appears to violate state and federal laws by holding children younger than 9 years old in a secure facility; detaining children who have not been adjudicated delinquent or dependent by a court; and holding children longer than five days.

Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said the crush of news about refugees fleeing poverty, war, and violence across the Mediterranean paints a picture of what many of the Berks detainees have gone through.

"As we prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis," who speaks out about the plight of migrants seeking refuge in Europe, she said, "we must evaluate our moral compass and atrocities occurring here."

The Human Rights First report drew on two site visits to Berks and interviews with 23 families. Released in August, it cited a range of alleged problems, including:

Inadequate attention to detainees' medical, mental health, and dietary needs, including a child who vomited blood for four days before being taken to a hospital.

Unreliable access to legal counsel.

A guard who was fired for sexually assaulting a female detainee.

Bail bonds of $5,000 or more, "far too high for indigent asylum seekers to afford."

The practice of shining flashlights into the rooms of sleeping families every 15 minutes for nightly bed checks, "causing insomnia, fear, and anxiety in children and parents."

The report describes Berks as "a former nursing home, in a picturesque part of central Pennsylvania."

While the families have "some degree of limited free movement within the facility and its outdoor grounds during set hours," the authors wrote, they "are still deprived of their liberty."

The report's recommendation: Close Berks.

Several lawyers for the families have written to Pennsylvania officials arguing that incarcerating immigrant women and children exceeds the authority of Berks' license because no child there has been adjudicated delinquent, and none are dependent because they are there with at least one parent.


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541@MichaelMatza1