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Closing Berks County immigrant detention center is not enough

We need all immigrant detention centers shut down, in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition outside the Berks County Detention Center in Reading in July.
Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition outside the Berks County Detention Center in Reading in July.Read moreEzras Tellalian

Last month, when I first got word that the federal government will finally shut down the Berks County immigrant detention center, where women and families have been held for over 20 years, I cried. Then I celebrated with the amazing group of people who made this victory possible. And then I got back to work fighting for justice for immigrant families.

I have helped lead the Shut Down Berks Coalition — a diverse group of immigrant leaders, organizers, activists, faith leaders, and lawyers — for nearly eight years. The Berks County Residential Center, a former senior citizens’ home in a little town outside of Reading, has been used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2001.

Since 2014, we saw this facility be used to detain mothers and children in a way that was tantamount to a prison — if anyone tried to leave, there would be immediate consequences, most likely deportation. Women and children have been held at Berks from countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Brazil, Ecuador, Syria, Eritrea, Venezuela, England, Romania, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, and Turkey.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has been demanding closure because we have heard year after year from those held there endless reports of medical neglect, poor-quality food, abuse, flashlight checks in dorms throughout the night, and the general harm that lack of bodily autonomy and the uncertainty of the future brings to those incarcerated.

The site is run by ICE, and it’s always been at its — and ultimately the president’s — discretion to shut it down. It was our organizing and people power that finally convinced them to put an end to this atrocity. We never let up the pressure on those in power, whether they were a Democrat or a Republican, to do the right thing.

For seven years, we have held vigils outside Berks, held honk-ins and rallies, and dropped banners over bridges in Philadelphia and Reading. We interrupted Democratic Party leadership as they entered a fund-raiser dinner in Philadelphia and have been arrested multiple times in Harrisburg and Berks County. We made huge puppets of butterflies to represent migration, Christmas caroled for freedom at the ICE field office in Philadelphia, and centered those incarcerated in YouTube videos and a documentary film. We’ve educated and tweeted and called and paraded and protested, then protested some more.

Closing this infamous immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania, without a doubt, is the right and just thing to do. However, it’s hard to believe the president did this solely because it is just.

We can only guess at the motivation behind this decision, but we know it lies firmly on the foundation of the movement we’ve built statewide, and we can only assume Pennsylvania’s rapidly growing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) electorate has come into consideration. Whoever hopes to win Pennsylvania in 2024 will need the full support of BIPOC voters to make that happen, and BIPOC voters have shown they focus on actions, not just words.

But Black, brown, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Arab voters aren’t easily bought. Closing Berks is a good first step, but it’s not enough.

First and foremost, the detention center doesn’t close until Jan. 31, and ICE has confirmed that any woman who can’t settle her case with a judge by then will be transferred to another ICE facility. We flatly reject that and will spend this holiday season doing everything we can to ensure that every single woman at Berks is freed.

Beyond that, we need all immigrant detention centers shut down, in Pennsylvania and across the country. In Pennsylvania, we estimate that thousands of people are being held by ICE in the Moshannon Valley Processing Center, the Pike County Correctional Facility, and the Clinton County Correctional Facility. We also need a fundamentally new approach to immigration law — like a pathway to citizenship, an end to deportations, and an end to the militarization of the border.

President Joe Biden’s decision to shut down a detention center that held immigrant women because of the pressure he felt from a well-organized campaign is inspirational. Change is possible. Now it’s time to go the distance and create a truly just and welcoming country.

Jasmine Rivera is one of the cofounders and coordinators of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of organizations and individuals fighting to close the Berks County immigrant detention center in Leesport, Pa.