In 2018, as the Trump administration was ramping up its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, I volunteered at the South Texas Family Residential Center, effectively a prison for immigrant mothers and their children in Dilley, Texas. Entering this space as a social work graduate student, I had the support of my peers and professors throughout this experience, but nothing could prepare me for what I encountered.
I witnessed mothers with toddlers begging us to help them leave. I witnessed the callousness with which staff treated the women being detained, as if the women were anything but human. Everyday I witnessed another way that mothers were stripped of their dignity by guards who only saw threats when the women tried to protect themselves and their children. Every time I met with one of the mothers, I could sense their confusion, worry and apprehension. Everyday, the women I worked with would tell me “I am fleeing my country because I want a better future for my children and for myself,” “My children and I will be kidnapped, sexually abused or killed if we go back,” and many more heartbreaking stories.
I wish I could say that these were isolated experiences. But through the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group fighting to end the practice of imprisoning immigrant families, I know first-hand that these stories are frighteningly universal. That’s certainly true for the countless Central American and Haitian families detained for months at a time at the Berks County Residential Center, a prison for immigrant families, in Leesport, Pennsylvania. The Berks family prison was one of three in the U.S. that imprisoned parents and children together — it was the only one of three that was publicly owned. For years in Berks County, tax dollars were used to lock away families for months, instead of providing the necessary health and human services that advocates and many residents have demanded.
In February, we achieved a significant victory, after years of community organizing, all families at the Berks family prison were released to their sponsors. Unfortunately, this victory was short lived — the Biden administration’s iteration of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Berks County Commissioners developed a plan to repurpose the space into a prison for immigrant women. Despite opposition from many Berks County residents, the administration plans to immediately begin incarcerating women awaiting decisions on their immigration cases.
Officials are moving forward with the new plan for the Berks center despite a raft of complaints about the treatment of detainees there and elsewhere. At Berks, there have been multiple reports of abuse against women, including the repeated sexual assault of a 19-year-old mother by a guard. At another location, the T. Don Hutto Detention Center — the only other immigrant family prison that was repurposed for immigrant women — there have been allegations of pervasive sexual abuse, retaliation, medical neglect, and nutritional deprivation.
The move to expand detention centers is being driven by the Biden administration as part of their overall immigration plan, despite campaign promises to the contrary. Leading up to the 2020 election, the Biden-Harris campaign called the Trump administration’s stance regarding immigration a “moral failing and a national shame,” and that it “stops when Joe Biden is elected president.” However, I would ask President Biden: do you truly believe that your administration is morally distinct from the Trump administration when you continue to expand immigrant detention under every name but “detention”? Did you think that Berks County residents and Pennsylvanians would excuse this immense moral failing?
We are determined to see this immigrant prison shut down permanently. We have seen this playbook before with the Obama administration’s detention and deportation machine. We are demanding real change: shut down Berks, shut down immigrant detention centers everywhere in the U.S., invest in providing real services to our communities.
Adrianna Torres-García is the Program Coordinator for Free Migration Project and a 2021 Communications Institute Fellow with The Opportunity Agenda. She lives in Philadelphia and advocates for freedom of movement as a human right.