Thousands of demonstrators plan to rally across the Philadelphia region and around the world on Friday to protest what is being called President Donald Trump’s “inhumane” treatment of migrants, raising their voices two days before the administration starts what officials say will be a nationwide roundup of undocumented immigrants.
Those two events could move Pennsylvania to center stage at a particularly contentious moment in the debate over immigration, particularly if some of the migrants arrested are sent to the Berks Detention Center in Leesport, one of three family detention centers in the country.
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Protests are scheduled all around the region under the “Lights for Liberty” banner, from Center City to Collingswood, with others set in a score of communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Demonstrations are planned in all 50 states and 13 foreign countries, including Australia, Germany, Haiti, Israel, and Japan.
Beginning Sunday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intends to carry out a series of raids to arrest and deport “thousands” of undocumented immigrants, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing conversations with one former and two current Department of Homeland Security officials. Other national news organizations confirmed the report.
Reports of a sweep come weeks after Trump tweeted that ICE would conduct raids, then delayed the operation to see if Congress could find an acceptable solution on immigration.
ICE agents will target at least 2,000 migrants who have received final deportation orders, the newspaper reported.
The agency’s Philadelphia field office, which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia, ranks among the most aggressive in the country, a 2018 investigation by Pro Publica and The Inquirer found.
Last year, in a seven-day operation, federal authorities arrested 49 immigrants in the Philadelphia region, targeting those who had committed crimes, faced pending criminal charges, or had previously been deported.
The upcoming raids, however, are the “lowest this government has gone,” said Jasmine Rivera, an activist with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which has long fought to have the facility closed.
On Thursday, the ACLU and other rights groups asked a federal judge to block the administration from detaining refugees from Central America in the expected sweep, saying migrants who escaped persecution in their homelands have a right to asylum hearings before they can be deported.
In the meantime, the threat of arrests was driving people to act.
“There has been a surge of signups since the stories about the raids have been making the rounds online,” said Adam Sheridan, an organizer with the South Jersey political-action group Cooper River Indivisible, which expects 250 people at a Collingswood vigil on Friday evening.
When signs of immigration sweeps emerge, Philadelphia advocates remind people of their legal rights and advise: If ICE officers knock on the door, don’t open it. If the agents say they have a warrant, ask them to slide it under the door. Should you be stopped by officers outside, do not answer questions or sign any papers. Say only that you wish to speak to a lawyer.
“Immigrant families across the country are living in fear of being separated due to the raids, mass arrests, and deportations President Trump is threatening,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the family advocacy group MomsRising, said in a statement Thursday. “President Trump’s immigration policies are cruel and racist, and must end now.”
Others strongly support Trump’s actions and insist that people who entered the country without permission must be removed.
About 1 million migrants have final removal orders, “and they need to be removed from the U.S. as some pose a public safety risk,” said Matthew Tragesser, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “Interior immigration enforcement remains a top priority for the Trump administration and is necessary to hold those accountable who openly broke the nation’s laws. … The current border crisis has been exacerbated by not having strong interior enforcement.”
Immigration advocates worry that the 96-bed Berks County lockup — vilified by critics as a “baby jail” — may be filled to capacity by Monday. It now holds 21 parents and children.
Formally known as the Berks County Residential Center, it is the oldest and smallest of the three detention facilities; the other two are in Texas. A low-security lockup opened in 2001 in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Berks was designed to hold parents and their children who came into the United States without papers.
The three detention centers have a combined capacity of about 3,100.
Organizers including Shut Down Berks and CASA de Maryland expect scores of protesters to gather outside the center Friday night, demanding that the facility be closed.
“We want the detainees to know they matter, that people are out there fighting for them,” said Laura Rose, a Bucks County organizer with PA Statewide Indivisible, who is helping lead a busload of demonstrators to the center. The Berks center is “a stain that has no place in our state.”
The confluence of promised demonstrations and threatened arrests shows how immigration issues are not confined to the southern border, but reach deeply into northern states like Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
Protesters in more than 500 cities, towns, and municipalities across the U.S. are readying to participate in the Lights for Liberty rally to close what they call "concentration camps.” Key events are planned in El Paso, Texas, where migrants are being housed under a bridge; at a migrant child-detention center in Homestead, Fla.; and in San Diego, at the port of entry site near Tijuana, Mexico.
Friday’s protest comes in the wake of a DHS inspector general’s report citing “dangerous” overcrowding and the prolonged detention of small children in government custody, and a visit by a congressional delegation to two border facilities in Texas, places the lawmakers decried as deplorable.
PTrump has blamed Democrats for conditions at migrant facilities, and suggested the situation is exaggerated by false news reports, and also that migrants in custody are better off than they were in their troubled homelands.
“People who came from unbelievable poverty — they had no water, they had no anything where they came from — those are people that are very happy with what’s going on, because relatively speaking, they’re in much better shape right now,” Trump said.
Philadelphia-area organizers have scheduled rallies in Center City, Mount Airy, Media, and West Chester, while additional protests are planned in Pittsburgh, Lancaster, Milford, Sellersville, Tioga, and Westmoreland. More than a dozen rallies are set in New Jersey.