When the last immigrant families left the Berks County detention center several months ago, activists who for years have been calling for the facility’s closure celebrated a hard-won victory while also saying they feared it might reopen.
As it turned out, their concerns were warranted.
On Saturday, about 100 people gathered on Independence Mall to protest new plans for the facility, the kind immigrant advocates had worried about. Berks County commissioners voted last month to allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use the detention center to detain women seeking asylum.
“We believe that no one should be incarcerated for being a migrant,” said Adrianna Torres-Garcia, of the Free Migration Project, part of a coalition of local organizations that want the facility shuttered.“There’s absolutely no reason for Pennsylvania to be complicit in the immoral act of immigrant detention.”
Advocates have long decried living conditions at the facility and argued that asylum-seekers should be released to live with family members or sponsors in the community.
On Saturday, speakers stressed that their goal is to see the facility shut down entirely, not transition to holding another population of immigrants. They spoke in front of an enormous sign that spelled out “LIBERTAD” in more than 1,000 paper flowers — a piece by the artist Michelle Angela Ortiz. The flowers had been folded by two women Ortiz visited at Berks, who were incarcerated there for more than a year. Attendees chanted “Shut down Berks!” and “Sí se puede!” — (”Yes we can!”).
“Immigrants in Pennsylvania are not going to allow families, women, or anyone, to be incarcerated,” said one community organizer at Saturday’s event.
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County, a longtime critic of the Berks facility, told attendees that she and other lawmakers have “renewed conversations” with Gov. Tom Wolf, Berks County commissioners, and the Biden administration. She said she’s requested a copy of the county’s new contract with ICE and has also written to President Joe Biden demanding the center stay closed.
State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), who also spoke at the rally, said he attended not “as a Democrat but as a father and someone who loves justice” and encouraged activists to protest at the state Capitol as well. “I was the first elected from Philadelphia to visit Berks,” he said. “It was soul-crushing.”
Activists who spoke said they were disappointed in the Biden administration’s approach to immigration — from the decision to reopen the Berks facility, to the disturbing images that emerged this week of Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian refugees on the Texas border, and the mass deportations that followed.
Steve Paul, the cofounder of Haitian-American Voice and an employee at the political strategy organization State Innovation Exchange, told rally attendees that he had fled fighting in Haiti with his family when he was 9. He said it was important for him to represent a community of immigrants that aren’t often visible.
“As a Black man, as an immigrant, I know not one political party is going to create a situation that pushes for liberation. But I worked to get Biden elected,” he said. “Now we’re saying, we’re going to hold you accountable.”