The idea was as simple as it was compassionate: Donate books. Spanish-language books, for children locked up in immigration detention centers. To let them know they had friends their own age thinking of them. To give them something of their own — to take home with them. A distraction, with a message of hope tucked inside, as they waited for the United States government to release them.
The kids at Mighty Writers' El Futuro branch, on Ninth Street in South Philly, put their plan to work. Mighty Writers is a writing academy and an after-school program; its El Futuro branch is dedicated to the Latino immigrant community that has blossomed in a neighborhood long known for, and strengthened by, its immigrant population. Proof against all of our president's fearmongering about what immigrants do when they come here: They thrive. They contribute. They help others.
The Mighty Writers had heard the stories of children separated from their families at the border. And they knew that children and their families were being detained in places as close as the Berks County Residential Center, 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
In the immigration advocacy community, Berks has long been known by a different name: Baby Jail. For a time, as my colleague Jeff Gammage has reported, the prison housed 80 immigrant detainees, mostly mothers and children. Now, about 20 families are housed there, all seeking asylum from unspeakable violence, willing to make the treacherous trek across a continent from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Now, advocates fear it will become a model for the Trump administration's plan to detain immigrant families. Because that's where we are now — looking for more ways to lock up parents and children. At least they're together this time.
Things came together quickly. Mighty Writers staffers spoke with a teacher at the Berks detention center who said the books would be a welcome gift.
And so they got a grant. They bought 700 books, 100 for Berks and 600 for detention centers around the country. Thirty Latino kids at Mighty Writers drew bookmarks with messages of comfort and solidarity. It was like a party, said Tim Whitaker, the organization's director. Everything was marching along.
The books were to have been delivered Tuesday at 10 a.m. No media, just sealed, unopened boxes of books, as the detention center folks requested. The Mighty Writers packed the bookmarks separately. They wanted everything to go smoothly. This wasn't a political gesture, they said. It was an act of friendship.
On Monday night, with the books packed and ready to go, the detention center abruptly changed its mind. No thanks, they said. We don't need your books.
Whitaker said no one from Berks County, which runs the detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, offered an explanation for the sudden turnaround, other than that they had a full library. Give the books to someone without a library, they were told.
An ICE official told me Tuesday night that the detention center has an overabundance of books through a partnership with a local library, and recommended that the books be sent to local shelters.
Great. But the books weren't meant for the library. They were meant as gifts for jailed children so they could have something of their own.These were new books, graphic novels where the characters spoke and looked like the kids in the detention center. Books that they could take home, to start their own libraries.
What harm would a book do?
Even if the books were destined for the library, visitors say there's plenty of room for more.
State Rep. Chris Rabb, who represents Northwest Philly, toured the center just Monday, wanting to see the jail for himself. He's been fighting to get it closed.
"I recall seeing two bookshelves," he said. "One took up most of the main library wall — a hundred or more random, all-English, tattered books. In an alcove along another much narrower wall was a far smaller bookshelf with books in Spanish. The library was spacious — plenty of room to accept additional books, or at the very least replace books of little use to detainees who speak no English."
Besides, the Mighty Writers had hoped the messages on the bookmarks would give the children comfort — kids from whom they were separated by just a few degrees of circumstance.
Alma, a sixth grader and a Mighty Writer, wrote a simple note on her bookmark: "Keep Calm and Read On."
"I was very sad about it," she said after learning the books had been turned away. "I felt like they would know someone really cared about them."
Whitaker said the detained children's plight is not far from the Mighty Writers' minds. "The kids are very aware of it," he said. "We've done a lot of writing about identity and telling stories about where they came from, why they're here. These are conversations that take place in their families all the time.
"I'm frustrated, angered, and saddened for the kids," he said. "It's just miserable that it came to this kind of end. Unfortunately, it's what you would expect at this point from people detaining kids."
He said their experience at Berks wouldn't deter them from sending books elsewhere.