Citing abuse, advocates want immigrant families released from Berks detention

Opponents of the Berks detentions rallied at state DHS Secretary Ted Dallas’ office here last year. More protests are planned Monday.

Alleging human-rights abuses, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups is calling for the emergency release of dozens of Central American women and their children from a Berks County detention center where they have been incarcerated since entering the United States illegally and requesting asylum.

Some of the women have been held as long as a year in the Berks County Residential Center - a county-run facility that also is drawing critical attention from Pennsylvania human services officials, who are weighing its future.

County government "should . . . stop participating in [the] painful and inhumane practice" of imprisoning families, the Shut Down Berks Campaign said Friday in a statement. It cited the documented rape of a mother by a guard last year, as well as allegations of labor abuses in the work program and medical neglect of the families.

The campaign said it plans to highlight those issues Monday with symbolic "cease and desist" orders to be delivered at demonstrations in Philadelphia and Berks County.

Advocates for the women and children say the Berks center is the latest battleground in the debate over the treatment of families who enter the United States illegally while fleeing what they describe as rampant gang violence and government corruption in their homelands.

Taking their fight to the doorsteps of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Philadelphia and the Berks facility, the advocates plan to picket the ICE office at 16th and Callowhill Streets early Monday, then ride a chartered bus to the center at 1040 Berks Rd. in Leesport.

Opened in 2001, the center is the oldest and smallest of the nation's three detention centers for undocumented immigrant families. The others are in Texas. Critics of the system say the women could just as easily be released on bail, or under monitoring supervision, to ensure they report to court for their immigration cases.

For years, the operating license for the 96-bed facility, run by the Berks County Board of Commissioners under the supervision of ICE, was routinely renewed. However, in January, after advocates for the families pointed out an apparent discrepancy between what the license authorizes and what actually occurs at the center, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked it, effective Sunday, for "noncompliance."

According to the revocation order, the facility is supposed to operate only as a residential placement for children unaccompanied by adults. By housing families, officials said, it was not operating "as the type of facility for which it was originally licensed."

Apparently, that distinction had never before been an issue.

On Feb. 8, the facility appealed the revocation. The administrative appeal will be heard by a single hearing examiner in the DHS Office of Hearings and Appeals. While the appeal is pending, the center is allowed to continue operating.

In the appeal, lawyers for the center, Matthew Connell and Tricia Ambrose of the MacMain Law Group in Malvern, wrote that the facility "has always operated as a residential program serving refugee immigrant families." They contend that DHS actions "are deceptive, arbitrary, capricious and lack regulatory motive."

A pre-hearing conference is scheduled for March 1. According to DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac, "the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals is still reviewing the file to determine if the hearing will be public."

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541@MichaelMatza1