The Berks County detention center now holds enough children to fill a day-care center.

Two 1-year-olds. Two 2-year-olds. Two 3-year-olds. There are also a 4-year-old and two 6-year-olds, according to the legal nonprofit group that represents undocumented immigrant families held there. Seven other children are between ages 7 and 10, and seven more range from ages 11 to 16.

“Detention for kids is wrong, no matter the age,” said Bridget Cambria, a lawyer with ALDEA–the People’s Justice Center.

The 96-bed center in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, has long been assailed by critics as a “baby jail." The Berks County Residential Center drew international attention this month for holding a 3-month-old boy in what his mother described as filthy and frigid conditions.

The British mother, husband, and son were arrested after what they said was a wrong turn at the Canadian border, and subsequently deported by federal immigration authorities who said they had deliberately crossed into the United States.

The attention came as the population at Berks has surged, and the pressure of pending local and national elections offers leverage to activists who demand the center’s closure.

“A lot of people are hearing about it for the first time, and when they do, they want to shut it down,” said Sara Alicia Huerta Long, who has been canvassing door-to-door as a field organizer with Sunrise Berks, a group that works on climate and immigration issues.

Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz spells out "Libertad," meaning "Freedom," with paper flowers outside Philadelphia City Hall in 2017. Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition called on Gov. Wolf to close the facility in Leesport.
Kait Moore / File Photograph
Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz spells out "Libertad," meaning "Freedom," with paper flowers outside Philadelphia City Hall in 2017. Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition called on Gov. Wolf to close the facility in Leesport.

Berks is one of just three places in the country where the federal government confines undocumented families. Today, the center holds about 22 families, composed of roughly 32 parents and 30 children from Mexico, Haiti, and Central American nations, Cambria said. All are seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States.

Some ended up at Berks after presenting themselves to authorities at the southern border. Some missed court hearings without knowing it and were issued deportation orders, then picked up at home, work, or during routine check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE officials declined to provide a breakdown by age or gender of what they said were 54 people held at Berks. They called Berks an “effective and humane” means of housing families, a place with play rooms, educational services, access to legal counsel and medical care.

On Friday morning, Cambria said, a 17-year-old boy from Mexico turned 18, and was handcuffed and taken to an adult detention center. His parents also were removed, to be separated and held in male and female jails, because they are no longer the parents of a child in detention.

Across the country, the incarceration of migrant children, with or without their parents, is helping to supercharge the emotional national debate over immigration. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, immigration issues animate voters in liberal cities like Philadelphia and in conservative mid-state towns.

The redbrick facility is run by the county through a contract with ICE. Berks and the other two family-detention centers, both in Texas, together have room for about 3,100 detainees. Berks is the oldest and smallest.

Shut Down Berks Coalition leader Jasmine Rivera and other activists blame the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants. But they also turn their ire on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, saying he should issue an emergency order to close the center.

“It’s infuriating [state officials] are not using every part of their power to shut down this facility,” she said. “They have an internment camp in our state.… How do you stand by?”

Wolf says that the detention center should be closed, but that he has no power to do so, absent a finding of “immediate and serious danger to the life or health” of the children, which would justify an emergency removal order.

Rivera said churches and community sponsors have prepared spaces to house families the moment they’re released from the Berks site. Because people seeking asylum can be eligible for work permits, these families could get jobs, supporting themselves and paying taxes.

There’s interest, she said, in converting the building into a drug-treatment center for a state battered by the opioid epidemic.

At a Thursday forum for candidates running for Berks County commissioner, incumbent Democrat Kevin Barnhardt said he recently met with Wolf administration officials to try to find a better use for the center and “just eliminate the federal program.”

Nothing was decided, he said. It’s important that whatever might come next does not cost the jobs of 60 county workers there, he added.

The Wolf administration tried to revoke the site’s operating license in 2016, but that’s been under court appeal, with the facility allowed to operate in the meantime.

The state Department of Human Services conducts regular monitoring, including unscheduled visits, said Ali Fogarty, the agency spokesperson.

“While the Wolf administration strongly opposes detention of undocumented families, we are committed to doing what we can to uphold quality of care standards as long as Berks County Residential Center operates with a state license and oversight,” Fogarty said.

Critics insist that the “serious danger” threshold is met by the simple fact of detention, which medical research shows can have negative physical and emotional impacts on children, including sleep problems, depression, anxiety and weight loss.

“There is no evidence indicating that any time in detention is safe for children,” the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in a policy statement.

More than 100 psychiatry and psychology faculty at Pennsylvania universities signed a letter to Wolf this past summer that said the center was subjecting children to “profound immediate, long-term, and irreparable harm.”

There’s no guarantee that Berks families would be released to relatives or sponsors if the facility closed. They could simply be moved to detention centers elsewhere.

At one point, mostly mothers and children filled 80 beds. Last year, Berks housed about 20 families, all fathers and children who were seeking asylum after fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

For decades, across presidential administrations of both parties, the government has used the threat of detention to try to dissuade people from crossing into the United States without notable success. The Trump administration sees deterrence as an important element of its policies, believing immigrants who know they’ll face detention will think twice about coming here.

What the government doesn’t understand, said Rivera, is that families facing life-and-death choices in Central America won’t be dissuaded by the prospect of detention in the United States.

“If you have to choose between staying in a place that’s violent, where your child could be killed, or forced into a gang, or kidnapped … every single parent would do whatever they need to do to protect their child,” she said. “That’s what the families did who are in the Berks detention center.”