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Berks family detention center: A model for jailing migrant families?

Immigration advocates worry that the Berks County lockup may become a model for the Trump administration's promised expansion of beds and facilities in which to jail families.

Protesters gather outside Gov. Wolf's Philadelphia office at 110 N. 8th St. to call for the shutdown of the Berks Family Detention Center on Tuesday.
Protesters gather outside Gov. Wolf's Philadelphia office at 110 N. 8th St. to call for the shutdown of the Berks Family Detention Center on Tuesday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

By one lawyer's count, the migrant child who spent the longest time in custody at the Berks family detention center was a 6-year-old boy.

He was jailed for 707 days, nearly two years, and was 8 when he left.

Other children have spent 600 days or more as they've waited with their parents for court hearings and decisions, held in the only center in Pennsylvania that houses mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

Now, immigration advocates worry that the Berks County lockup — long vilified by critics as a "baby jail" that should be closed — may be used as a model for the Trump administration's promised expansion of beds and facilities in which to jail families.

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"Berks is a microcosm of what could potentially be a much bigger mechanism of family detention," said Bridget Cambria, an attorney with the nonprofit advocate Aldea–The People's Justice Center,  who represents families at the center.

The Trump administration is calling for greater family detention, having last week abandoned its policy of separating migrant families at the southern border amid huge public outcry.

Federal authorities say they may seek up to 15,000 beds to hold more families. And the Justice Department has asked a federal court in California to let children be detained longer, and to be kept in places that don't need a state license to operate.

Currently, there are three centers that hold families — the two others are in Texas — with a combined capacity of about 3,100 people. It is expected the government will quickly run out of beds, given the pace of immigrant families who are entering the country without permission.

What is formally known as the Berks County Residential Center is the oldest and smallest of the three detention facilities, a low-security lockup opened in 2001 in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It was designed to hold parents and their children who came into the United States without papers.

Its population and makeup shift over time. At one point, Berks held mostly mothers and children, who filled 80 or more of its 96 beds. Today, the center houses about 20 families, all fathers and children. All fled violence in the "Northern Triangle" of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And all are seeking asylum, which is different from sneaking into the country and attempting to stay.

"Berks has always been the model," said Jasmine Rivera, a leader in the Shut Down Berks Coalition. "It's really about [the administration] looking at these three institutions and just expanding it."

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On Saturday, she and scores of others intend to crowd Logan Circle in Philadelphia for a rally against family detentions, part of a national demonstration being planned in cities around the nation.

In Pennsylvania, the political pressure to close the Berks center has never been greater, with Gov. Wolf facing reelection at a time of high passion around immigration issues.

Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, said Wolf has two choices: Support immigrant families by closing the center through an emergency removal order. Or support the Trump agenda by letting the place continue to operate.

"This is the moment, this is the opportunity for Gov. Wolf to really make it clear which side of the issue he stands on," she said.

Wolf spokesperson Sara Goulet said it's not nearly that simple.

The governor cannot issue an emergency order unless there is misconduct at the facility that creates immediate danger to the lives or health of the children there. Ongoing inspections by the state Department of Human Services have not found that to be the case, she said.

Wolf's communications director, Mark Nicastre, added that because the families are in federal custody, the state has no authority to unilaterally move them elsewhere.

Many critics don't accept that.

Last week, Philadelphia City Council called on Wolf to shutter the center immediately. U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle wrote Wolf to ask about the state's ability to close the facility, and 14 state representatives wrote to urge that specific action, asserting that children there have suffered "medical neglect, psychological trauma and persistent verbal abuse."

Children at Berks have experienced depression, anxiety, and increased aggression toward parents and other children, according to a 2015 study by the nonprofit Human Rights First. Many families sent to Berks already suffered trauma and abuse in their homelands, and detention worsens their condition, the report found.

In 2016, a 40-year-old guard pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault against a 19-year-old Honduran woman under his authority.

"I don't think Gov. Wolf or the majority of Pennsylvanians want to see our state become ground zero for expanding a policy that has shamed and appalled the nation," said City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who cosponsored the council resolution with María Quiñones-Sánchez. "Indefinite detention of children, refugees, and asylum seekers is a human rights violation — full stop."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, contracts with the county to house prisoners at Berks. In response to questions, an agency spokesperson said: "As Operational needs remain fluid, ICE is not able to comment on potential changes to the use of current facilities."

ICE officials have said they see the center as a humane way to keep families together while they await the outcome of immigration cases, asylum hearings, or deportation to their home countries.

Asylum is a legal means for migrants to seek permanent shelter in the United States, a way to allow people who have fled their homelands to assert a well-founded fear of being hurt, killed, or persecuted if they return.

Advocates say there's no reason to physically detain asylum-seekers at Berks. They're generally highly motivated to attend their hearings and could be released on bail or monitored.

The facility's state license expired in February 2016. When the state DHS announced it would not renew the permit, Berks County officials filed an administrative appeal, which they won in 2017. The state asked for reconsideration, and the process has since dragged on.

On Tuesday in Philadelphia, about 40 people took to the streets to demand that process end now, with the center's immediate closure. They gathered outside Wolf's branch office, chanting "Shut down Berks" and demanding that he act.

"It's no place for children to be living. It's no place for them to grow up," said Alexandra Gunnison, 31, of Philadelphia. "Gov. Wolf needs to shut this down."

The Obama administration detained families, too, locking up mothers and children in Pennsylvania for months or longer. President Barack Obama also detained asylum-seekers — but then people started winning their cases.

"Now it's like they don't want them to qualify," attorney Cambria said. "They want to deter asylum-seekers, so that they don't seek shelter in the United States. The thing is, it doesn't matter — if your house is on fire, you're going to leave it."