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Close the ICE ‘baby jaiI’ in Berks County | Editorial

A local election in Berks County, PA could determine the future of a controversial federal detention facility outside Reading that houses undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum but instead have been apprehended and await disposition of their cases.

Opponents of the detentions  for undocumented immigrant asylum seekers at a federal facility in Berks County, PA rallied outside the office of Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas in 2018.
Opponents of the detentions for undocumented immigrant asylum seekers at a federal facility in Berks County, PA rallied outside the office of Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas in 2018.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The federal government’s generally punitive posture toward undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in the United States seems unlikely to soften, much less shift — at least while Donald Trump is president.

But on Tuesday, Berks County voters who are for or against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies may decide the future of a controversial ICE family detention center that opened near Reading in 2001. The two Democrats running for seats on the three-member county commission, currently controlled by Republicans, favor closure — as do we — and the two Republicans on the ballot support keeping the 96-bed facility open.

What critics describe as a “baby jail”— recalling the infamous 2018 images of immigrant children in chain-link ICE enclosures, or “cages,” in Texas — is just 75 or so miles from Philadelphia. “There’s a misconception that immigration issues are border issues,” says Jasmine Rivera, a community organizer active with the Shut Down Berks Coalition. “These are nationwide issues. The fight is nationwide and local.”

Detainees generally are housed at Berks for fewer than 20 days while awaiting disposition of their court cases, although some stay longer. Last week, The Inquirer’s Jeff Gammage reported that 22 children age 16 or under, including a half-dozen younger than 4, were being held at the center during an advocacy group’s visit. ICE leases the county-owned, county-run facility for $1.3 million a year, and more than 60 people work there, the Reading Eagle newspaper reported in 2018. Shutting the place down is in the commission’s purview and also is a long-standing goal of a regional alliance of progressive organizations, including Shut Down Berks and the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.

» READ MORE: They swerved from Canada into the U.S. to avoid an animal on the road. Now they and their baby are in custody

» READ MORE: U.S. officials dispute Canadian border crossing story of British family being held in Berks Detention Center

Citing accounts by former detainees, as well as tours of the premises by politicians and others, advocates contend conditions inside the facility jeopardize the well-being of detainees. A recent documentary, Las Madres de Berks (The Mothers of Berks), makes the emotional case as well. The center continues to operate despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to rescind its state license — efforts the county commission has blocked for several years. Last week, however, the Wolf administration confirmed a WHYY report that talks are underway with the commission to find alternative uses for the facility, including as an addiction treatment center.

But the administration has resisted calls that it issue an emergency removal order, as it did following an investigation by The Inquirer’s Lisa Gartner into long-standing physical abuse of students at the Glen Mills Schools in Delaware County. The administration says unannounced inspections have consistently found the facility to beclean, well-operated, and providing good care.

More than enough questions have been raised, including by detainees themselves, about what it’s like to stay there — particularly for children — that a case surely can be made for something other than pointing fingers elsewhere or continuing the status quo. The Berks facility should be closed as soon as alternative, community-based arrangements for detainees can be established. And whatever the outcome Tuesday, Berks County voters may end up helping move Harrisburg off the dime.