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Flowers with a message: Gov. Wolf, close immigrant detention center now

Critics call the Berks County facility "the baby jail." It detains mothers and children who entered the United States without documents.

Michelle Angela Ortiz (left) and Maria Roman carry letters made from paper flowers, to spell out “Libertad,” meaning, “Freedom.”
Michelle Angela Ortiz (left) and Maria Roman carry letters made from paper flowers, to spell out “Libertad,” meaning, “Freedom.”Read moreKAIT MOORE / Staff Photographer

When immigration activists wanted to get Gov. Wolf's attention Wednesday, they decided to say it with flowers.

Paper flowers — 1,600 of them, dyed burgundy and pink, and arrayed like a huge, flat bouquet outside the north entrance to City Hall, some bearing the handwritten pleas of women confined at the Berks County detention center in Leesport.

Critics call it "the baby jail" because it holds children and parents, mostly mothers, who came into the United States without official documents.

In early afternoon, under the gaze of men and women escaping their offices for lunch, activists arranged rows of crepe-paper blooms to spell out Libertad — Spanish for "freedom" — in what they called an artful action to end family detention.

"Libertad! Libertad!" chanted supporters and members of the Shutdown Berks Coalition. They called on Wolf to issue an emergency removal order that they said could close the center with the stroke of a pen.

"Gov. Wolf," said one speaker, Jennifer Lee, who directs the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University, "you can shut down Berks."

The facility, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is run by Berks County under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The lockup currently houses about 30 families.

The governor believes that the center should no longer detain families and that the best way to achieve that is the revocation of its state license, which the administration is pursuing, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said Wednesday. As that litigation proceeds, the state Department of Human Services conducts regular inspections to ensure the safety and well-being of the women and children held there, he added.

Lawyers for the immigrant families contend that incarceration is a physically and psychologically harmful environment for children. Federal authorities, however, say it's a humane way to keep families together while they await court rulings on their cases.

During the rally, Wolf was at City Hall on other matters, and activists complained that he did not stop to speak with them. Abbott said the governor had attended an event that lasted longer than expected, and had to rush to his next appointment. He has previously spoken to groups seeking to close the center, Abbott added.

Advocates say that while the center holds federal detainees, it is still subject to state laws regarding child residential facilities.

Closing the facility, formally called the Berks County Residential Center, would stop additional families from being incarcerated, they said. Equally important, they say, it could allow the women and children to be released, perhaps on bail or under monitoring supervision to ensure they report to court for their immigration cases.

"I can't believe I actually have to fight to not have babies in jail," said Jasmine Rivera, a coalition leader. "How is this actually up for debate?"

The 96-bed facility is the oldest and smallest of the nation's three detention centers for parents and children. The others, in Texas, have a combined capacity of 3,000. Many of the families held in Pennsylvania come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, a region known as the Northern Triangle, having fled gang violence and desperate economic straits to apply for asylum in the U.S.

Asylum can be granted to people who are already in the country and are unable or unwilling to return home based on a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, or politics. Cases can go on for years.

Nearly 10 percent of the triangle's 30 million residents have left their countries, mostly for the U.S., according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013 and 2014, scores of undocumented teenagers and younger children, some with parents but many without, surged north across the southwestern U.S. border. President Barack Obama declared an "urgent humanitarian situation" and directed that children fleeing violence and poverty receive medical care and housing.

The Obama administration also got tough, undertaking what it called "an aggressive deterrence strategy" that focused on removal and return to homelands. Mothers and children who crossed the border were often locked up, sometimes for weeks and in Pennsylvania, for months or more.

Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz wanted to reach out. In many Latin nations, the making of paper flowers is a tradition, an intersection of conversation, family, and folk art, the blooms serving as bright, personal decorations for weddings, parties, and religious events. Ortiz thought that flowers, each taking about 10 minutes to make, could offer a voice to the women in detention.

"There aren't any bars, but they're still in prison," she said.

Ortiz intended to work with 14 mothers who had been held for periods nearing two years — but 10 were soon deported. Of the four who remained, two took part.

For them, Ortiz said, making flowers was both symbolic and therapeutic, helping fend off the anxiety over an uncertain future.

The two detained women, one from Honduras, the mother of a 5-year-old, and the other from El Salvador, parent to a 7-year-old, have been released. Both continue to fight deportation in court.

Their handwritten messages were only partially visible Wednesday, folded into the petals of the flowers at City Hall. Dozens of surrounding blooms were crafted by more than a hundred people who took part in workshops at the Monument Lab Field Office at the Barnes Foundation. The lab, a public-art project produced with Mural Arts Philadelphia, takes up questions of which monuments are appropriate and whether they might take new or unexpected forms.

The flowers were being moved to the Barnes late Wednesday.

"For me," Ortiz told the crowd at City Hall, "the mothers are not victims. They're heroines. … They find a moment of joy for their child, and a way to provide a moment of peace for their child, in a country where they feel they are not wanted."