Pa. won't renew license of immigrant-family detention center

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has decided not to renew the license of the Berks County facility where refugees and their minor children are detained pending resolution of asylum claims.

In a letter dated Thursday and obtained by The Inquirer, Human Services Secretary Theodore Dallas informed the 96-bed Berks County Residential Center that it was out of compliance with its license to provide "residential and day treatment" for court-adjudicated youth.

"BCRC now serves only refugee immigrant families," Dallas wrote. "As a result [it] is no longer operating as the type of facility for which it was originally and continues to be licensed. . . .

"Should BCRC choose to continue providing services to families rather than children," he continued, "DHS will take appropriate action and does not intend to renew [the license] when it expires on Feb. 21, 2016."

Berks, the smallest of the nation's three immigrant-family detention centers, has been the target of a months-long campaign by lawyers and activists who want it shut down.

In March, Matthew Archambeault, a Philadelphia immigration lawyer, alerted the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office to the licensing issue cited by Dallas.

The immigrant-rights group Juntos, which has chapters in Philadelphia and Norristown, has demonstrated frequently outside the Leesport facility.

Human Rights First, a national advocacy group, has visited it twice and issued reports citing pediatricians who said it is an oppressive environment for children.

Berks won't "come to a dramatic halt," said Human Rights First's Olga Byrne, senior associate for refugee protection. Nonetheless, she praised Dallas' action as "a tremendous step in the right direction."

Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said the decision is "a testament to the extensive organizing effort" that kept Berks - and a series of problems there, including an institutional rape - in the news.

Archambeault said he was pleased DHS took action but intends to press for more ahead of the February deadline.

"If it is operating illegally now," he said, "why not pull the license now?"

Efforts to reach the licensing division of DHS and the executive director of BCRC were unsuccessful Thursday night.

BCRC has existed for about 15 years; the Leesport location is its second. Over the years it has housed hundreds of immigrants annually, with many of the most recent coming from Central America.