Pennsylvania is the home of one of the three family detention centers in the country. About 20 families — fathers and children — are housed in the Berks County Residential Center. They are being detained while their asylum requests are processed, which at times means years.
Since the first days of the center, there have been calls to shut it down, and during the recent family separation and detention crisis, the center became the focus of national attention. Recently, "Occupy ICE" protesters called for Gov. Wolf to approve the closure of the Berks center. Last month, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution calling on Wolf to vacate the center.
If only things were that simple. The facility operates under a contract between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Berks County — not Pennsylvania. While the governor doesn't have the authority to shut it down, he has moved to do so through the state Department of Human Services, which has since 2016 been trying to revoke the facility's license to operate as a "child residential facility." The county sued to maintain the license and won. The state's appeal is pending.
If the state can show "gross incompetence" or that the conditions pose "immediate and serious danger" to those detained, it can vacate the center. According to sources, conditions in the facility do not meet the criteria for an Emergency Removal Order. Even if the governor would issue one, a judge would be likely to strike it down.
Still, the state can consider concrete and positive steps. .
Because immigration is a civil, not criminal, branch of law, immigrants requesting asylum are not assigned public defenders. According to a study from Seton Hall University, having a lawyer tripled the chances of an undocumented immigrant's winning a court case and avoiding deportation. New Jersey's governor recently announced that the state was going to dedicate $2.1 million to pay for legal representation for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Since there are only about 20 families detained in Berks. Wolf should consider finding the money to do the same.
Shutting down the center would be easier if Berks County had a financial incentive to do so. Since 2001, when Berks started to detain immigrant families, the county has profited by almost $7 million from contracts with ICE. According to the Reading Eagle, the county received $1.3 million in 2016 for operating the facility. One idea could be to convert the 96-bed center to a drug treatment facility. In the last two years, more than 85 people have died in Berks each year from an overdose of heroin or fentanyl – more than double the number of county people who died of a car accident. There is ample research showing that evidence-based drug treatment reduces overall health-care costs. The state could pay Berks $1.3 million a year as a social impact bond.
Unless Berks County or ICE takes action, the Berks Residential Center is going to remain open. Wolf should continue to find ways to close the center — and a drug treatment facility would do some good for other Pennsylvanians along the way.