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Immigration activists sue Berks commissioners to learn plans for ICE detention center

In March the center was emptied without explanation of the immigrant families it confined for two decades

An exterior view of the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, PA, taken last year. The center is now empty of the immigrant families it confined, but activists are demanding the county release information on future plans for the facility.
An exterior view of the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, PA, taken last year. The center is now empty of the immigrant families it confined, but activists are demanding the county release information on future plans for the facility.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The future of the Berks County detention center that long confined immigrant children and parents has been defined by an absence of information. Now an activist group has sued to demand, “What’s the plan?”

Make the Road Pennsylvania and several plaintiff community members cited a “deliberate effort by the Berks County commissioners to hide their decision-making.”

For weeks, the suit says, the commissioners have been talking to ICE about converting the facility into an immigrant women’s prison but have refused to make any material public. That includes withholding a proposal submitted to the commissioners from ICE, and to which the local leaders responded with a letter of support, the suit said.

This month the center was suddenly emptied of the immigrant families it held for two decades, sparking discussion of what could and should come next. There have been calls to turn the detention center into a drug-treatment facility or another kind of health-services provider.

Officials with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement earlier said the agency was evaluating the way it uses family detention centers, “which remain fully operational.”

“We don’t want immigrants to be detained there,” Make the Road organizer Armando Jimenez Carbarin said during a Tuesday news conference. “We want something that is not anti-immigrant, something that helps the community. … We don’t want ICE to be there, in the backyard of Reading and Berks County.

The suit was filed last Friday in Berks County Common Pleas Court against Berks County Commissioners Christian Leinbach, Kevin Barnhardt, and Michael Rivera. The filing was led by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University Law School.

Efforts to reach the commissioners for comment were not immediately successful Tuesday. ICE officials said that as a matter of policy they do not comment on pending litigation.

“Berks residents believe it is completely undemocratic that the commissioners refuse transparency and accountability with their constituents as to the content of their letter of support,” Make the Road and other immigrant groups said in a news release. Open records and meetings laws condemn this kind of secrecy, because it undermines public faith in government, the groups said.

The center has long been the target of immigrant groups and supporters who say it holds families in atrocious conditions.

What’s formally called the Berks County Residential Center sits in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, one of three places where the federal government has confined migrant families.

Its population has increased and decreased over time, rising or falling depending on the number of families entering the country and if and where the federal government decided to hold them. A year ago at this time, the center held about 40 migrant adults and children, the youngest a 6-month-old girl.

Berks’ reason for existence was to confine immigrants awaiting court hearings — which former President Donald Trump asserted was the only way to make sure they would show up. He said as little as 2% of those released to friends, family, or sponsors returned for court.

In fact, studies showed upwards of 80% appeared as directed.

A new study by the American Immigration Council adds nuance and depth to that issue, one that’s central to debates over the immigration-court system and what should happen to people awaiting hearings. The January analysis, based on government data, found that among immigrants who were not detained:

  1. 83% with completed or pending deportation cases attended all of their hearings from 2008 to 2018.

  2. Among those represented by a lawyer, 96% attended all of their hearings during those years.

  3. 15% of all deportation orders issued for failure to appear during that time were overturned. In some years it was 20%. That’s important, because it suggests that many people who failed to show up had wanted to appear but never received notice or were unable to travel to court.

“Former President Trump repeatedly shared misinformation that noncitizens never or rarely appear in court,” and policymakers relied on those assertions to make key decisions about expanding detention and reducing access to asylum, the council said. Activists have called on the Biden administration to immediately end immigration detention.

The new lawsuit would not force the Berks commissioners to stop contracting with ICE, said Jennifer Lee of the Sheller Center, but would require them to publicly explain and discuss their decisions, and to share relevant materials around that with the public.

The center may be empty, but “the fight is not over,” Carbarin said. “More families can continue to be brought back in. All of us need to hold the Biden administration accountable and demand [the Department of Homeland Security] end family detention nationwide.”