Pa. fights to shut down immigrant family detention center in Berks

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.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services' legal battle to shut down a Berks County detention center for undocumented immigrant mothers and their children is moving ahead, in the face of an April ruling by an administrative court judge allowing the facility to continue operating without a valid state license.

The agency's appeal of that decision, announced Friday, extends the Wolf administration’s long-running effort to revoke the license of the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). The Leesport facility is run by the county under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to incarcerate immigrant families while they pursue claims for asylum.

A decision granting or denying the state's petition to reconsider the matter is due the first week in June.

Since January 2016, when it revoked the center's license, DHS has maintained that it permits only “residential treatment for delinquent children,” not imprisonment of foreign families seeking protection.

For its part, BCRC, which opened in 2001, maintains that the revocation was "arbitrary," citing the fact that it routinely received license renewals for more than a decade.

In its petition for reconsideration, DHS wrote, “The fact that the department could or should have taken [earlier] action” to revoke the license “does not prevent the department from doing so now.”  

The 96-bed Berks center is the oldest and smallest of the nation’s three detention centers for parents, generally mothers, and their children who slip into the United States without papers. The other two centers, in Texas, have a combined capacity of 3,000. Critics of family detention say the women and children could just as easily be released on bail, or placed under monitoring supervision, to ensure they report to court for their immigration cases.

While some critics of the facility they call "the baby jail" were heartened by DHS’s decision to appeal, others want Gov. Wolf to act more forcefully.

“How long can they stand to leave Berks open when a 7-year-old just had his second birthday in a row there still locked up?” said Erika Almiron, director of Juntos, an advocacy group that supports the incarcerated mothers who are known as Madres Berks.

“Gov. Wolf has been asked several times to issue an emergency removal order, but he refuses to do it," Almiron said. "These are women and children seeking asylum. And rather than help, we have become a nation -- Democrat and Republican alike -- that finds it easier to lock them up rather than support the families.”

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor “believes that the center should no longer detain these families, and his administration continues to pursue the revocation of their state license. In the meantime, while that litigation is ongoing, DHS will continue to conduct regular inspections of the BCRC to ensure the safety and well-being of the women and children at the facility.”

On Monday, members of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a statewide advocacy group, were in Harrisburg to lobby legislators about bills it describes as anti-immigrant. About 25 members dropped in at Wolf’s office, said Philadelphia lawyer David Bennion, who has represented two families at Berks.

“The governor met with us briefly, which he had not done before,” and showed he is “paying more attention to the issue,” Bennion said. “But he is adamant that he is doing all he can and that he must stay detached and let the matter play out. We don’t agree.”