Immigrant advocates take aim at Berks center

Lawyers for immigrant children confined in Pennsylvania pending deportation say their detention at Berks County Residential Center is unlawful and are demanding the center be closed.

Led by Philadelphia attorney Matthew Archambeault, the lawyers contend that BCRC's state license authorizes residential treatment at the facility in Leesport for children who are delinquent or awaiting a juvenile court finding of delinquency.

"The problem," the advocates wrote in a letter delivered Tuesday to the office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, "is that none of the [immigrant] children . . . are delinquent. . . . They are all refugees seeking asylum here in the United States."

The facility has been operating for more than a decade, but the issue became more pressing after last summer's wave of undocumented children into the country. What was typically a stay of days or weeks has for some become months of confinement.

No immigrant child there, according to the letter, committed an act that would lead to a finding of delinquency under Pennsylvania law. Rather, they are typically charged with the offense of illegally entering the United States. The letter asks Kane to investigate "the unlawful imprisonment of hundreds of children over the last several years."

Copies were also sent to state and federal officials, including Gov. Wolf.

Kane spokeswoman Carolyn Myers said the office is reviewing the claims.

Typically, children housed at Berks were arrested at the southern border and shipped to Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Such centers "are an important part" of the government's response to last summer's spike in illegal migration, said ICE-Philadelphia spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell. She called them "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries."

The 85-bed Berks facility opened in March 2001 and is among three family residential centers maintained by ICE. The others are in Texas. All have been targets of immigrant rights groups, which contend it is inhumane to confine families when compliance with a notice to appear in immigration court can be accomplished by less restrictive means, including supervised release or electronic monitoring.

According to Berks' mission statement, the facility provides education for the children as well as family medical and mental health care. Its director, Diane Edwards, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Before last summer's illegal influx of tens of thousands of mostly Central American children, the Berks center typically housed mothers and children for brief stays while ICE worked to place them with family in the United States while their immigration cases proceeded.

Archambeault and his colleagues faulted "a change in policy in which ICE has refused release of these refugees and has begun to hold them in long-term detention." Eight to 10 months of detention "is not unheard of any longer," he wrote.

Archambeault said he is raising these questions now because they are timely, and because BCRC is due to double its capacity later this year.

 


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