Immigrant mothers join battle over Berks site

Protesters rally outside the Philadelphia office of Pennsylvania Human Services Sec. Ted Dallas to deliver a report alleging human rights abuses at the Berks County Residential Center on September 14, 2015.

Two immigrant mothers on Monday urged state officials to give them a voice as they decide the fate of a Berks County family detention center that has become a flashpoint in the debate over the handling of undocumented parents and their children.

In their petition, the women, both of whom have been held at the facility, recounted what they said is "gross negligence and misconduct" that endangers families detained at the 96-bed Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) in Leesport.

In one case, they claimed, a 5-year-old with diarrhea was left untreated for three weeks. In other instances, they said, young children experiencing "hopelessness and depression" are having trouble eating and sleeping.

The complaints come as state officials consider whether or not to renew the facility's license, which expired Feb. 21. The Department of Human Services this year said it planned to not renew the license, but the BCRC operators appealed. The appeal is to be heard by a DHS hearing examiner.

Opened in 2001, BCRC is the latest battleground in the national debate over the treatment of families, mostly from Central America, who have entered the U.S. illegally while fleeing what they describe as rampant gang violence and government corruption in their homelands. It's run by the Berks County Board of Commissioners under the supervision of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The women filed their petition Monday at DHS in Harrisburg, and with the MacMain Law Group of Malvern, which represents BCRC. Both DHS and MacMain declined to comment.

The petitioners and their children, whose names are redacted in the filing, are from Honduras and El Salvador. They entered the U.S. illegally within the past year and requested asylum, according to their petition.

"One would be hard pressed to imagine an interest that is more directly affected by a detention center's licensing nonrenewal than that of a parent and child physically confined to that facility," lawyers for the women wrote.

The Berks center is the oldest and smallest of the nation's three detention centers for undocumented parents and their children. The others are in Texas.

The Shut Down Berks Campaign, a coalition of advocates and immigration lawyers, wants the center closed permanently. As part of the effort, it has 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 families.

For years, BCRC was routinely relicensed.

In January, after the advocates pointed out an apparent discrepancy between what the BCRC license authorizes and what actually occurs at the center, DHS cited it for "noncompliance."

Its citation said 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."

Litigation in front of a hearing examiner "is a dry, legalistic battle," said Carol Anne Donohoe of Reading, a cocounsel for the petitioners. "The stories and faces behind it ... should be of interest" to whether BCRC stays open.

Another pre-hearing conference is scheduled April 7.

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541@MichaelMatza1