The Incline in Harrisburg

Why Pa.’s controversial detention center for immigrant families is still open

John Fetterman has called for the facility’s closure, as pressure mounts on his running mate, Gov. Tom Wolf.

Berks County Residential Center
Bill Uhrich/Reading Eagle

1:10 p.m.

As the U.S. turns its attention to the Southern border — where thousands of children have been separated from their parents as part of Trump administration policy — a controversial Pennsylvania family detention center is attracting renewed attention.

Advocates for immigrants, who have been trying to shut down the Berks County Residential Facility for much of its two decades of existence, are hoping the moment of collective outrage spurs legislators to act — and it appears they may be getting somewhere.

Philadelphia City Council approved a resolution Thursday calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to issue an emergency removal order to clear the facility.

Also this week, Congressman Brendan Boyle co-authored a letter to Wolf seeking answers to questions about the commonwealth’s jurisdiction over the center and about steps Wolf’s administration is taking to “prevent more families, including children, from being sent to the center.”

A third push came from a group of state representatives, who sent the governor and Pa. Department of Human Services Director Teresa Miller a separate letter urging the ERO be issued.

“There is a growing movement of hate, racism, and xenophobia plaguing our country right now, and that is why we look to the office of the Governor to take a stand for justice,” the state lawmakers, including those from Philadelphia and Allegheny County, wrote. “The continued operation of this prison is a stain on the Commonwealth as a whole, and we are looking to your leadership to end family detention in Pennsylvania.”

Wolf’s spokesperson says he wants to close the place, but the administration’s hands are tied. His running mate, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, has spoken out forcefully in favor of the center’s immediate closure, even circulating a petition via his campaign website to “Shut Down Berks.”

If you’re not familiar with the issues that have been found at the facility, here’s a sampling:

A 19-year-old woman was groomed then sexually assaulted by a guard in recent years.

Families escaping gang violence in Central America have been held for months on end, in some cases for more than a year, in conditions described by one mother as “unbearable.”

Children have even been redesignated as unaccompanied minors and sent away from their mothers, according to a government-sanctioned committee.

So why hasn’t Wolf closed it yet? Partly because of questions over jurisdiction — it’s unclear whether he has the power to do so.

The facility is owned by the county and operated through an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which did not respond to a request for comment. The center’s executive director, Diane Edwards, was not immediately available to comment Friday.

According to the Reading Eagle, Berks County receives about $1 million annually from ICE to cover operational costs and use of the building space.

The detention center ran with approval from the state until 2016, when the Pa. Department of Human Services declined to renew a necessary license. Berks County appealed the decision to DHS’ Bureau of Hearings and Appeals and won. DHS in turn appealed that decision. Years later, and there’s still no resolution.

With the appeal still stuck in a bureaucratic bog, advocates for the center’s closure are looking to Wolf to take action.

Legal experts including those at Temple University say Wolf’s administration can and should issue an emergency removal order for the detainees at the facility because of the conditions they face. Representatives for both Wolf and Pa. DHS say inspections have not uncovered violations necessary to take this step.

That rationale doesn’t mean this issue is going away, as protests are planned for the rest of the month.

“Politically, we think the governor doesn’t want to take a bold position, even though we don’t believe it’s bold to take action to ensure small children are not sent to prison,” said David Bennion, a Philadelphia-based immigration lawyer and Shut Down Berks Coalition member. “It seems like a political no-brainer, but the governor is treating it like a hot potato he doesn’t want to have anything to do with.”

The past and the present

The Berks County Residential Center is in state Sen. Judith Schwank’s district, which the Democrat has represented since 2011, but she has an older connection to the facility. As a county commissioner, Schwank voted on a contract with federal immigration authorities to house families in a wing of a facility used to detain immigrant youths, the Reading Eagle reported in 2000.

“It has evolved over the years,” she said of the contract. “It’s not the agreement I signed.”

In fact, Berks County opened a licensed immigration center to hold only children in 1998, according to a document prepared by the Pa. DHS Bureau of Hearings and Appeals. The center switched operations in 2001 and began holding families. It’s now one of three such facilities in the U.S.

Twenty-five families are currently detained at the facility, according to Jackie Kline, a Reading-based attorney and member of Aldea–The People’s Justice Center, a collection of advocates working pro-bono with families at Berks. She called that number “fairly low” for a facility that can house up to 96 people. At the time of its license renewal, Berks had been looking to double that capacity.

Kline described the facility as “very small,” with college dorm-like rooms, access to too few interpreters (especially for those speaking indigenous languages), and cafeteria food that often disagrees with the digestive systems of detainees — although the federal government prefers to call them “residents.”

She said the majority of the families in the facility now are indigenous Guatemalans. That country and others in Central America have been ravaged by gang violence, which has prompted many to flee to Mexico and the U.S.

After thousands of unaccompanied minors crossed the border, then Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in 2015 the formation of an Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers in response to concerns about detention practices. That group, referred to as ACFRC, released a report the following year that recommended Homeland Security only detain families on rare occasions and for as short a time as possible as “detention is never in the best interest of children.”

That’s not what was happening at Berks.

A small group of ACFRC members visited the facility in June 2016 and substantiated reports that some families were held for more than a year. The long detentions led some women at the facility to go on a hunger strike in 2016, as their children had become suicidal.

“The teenagers say BEING HERE, LIFE MAKES NO SENSE, THAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO BREAK THE WINDOW TO JUMP OUT AND END THIS NIGHTMARE, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape,” the women wrote in a letter to Secretary Johnson.

ACFRC also detailed onerous rules: Mothers at the facility were not allowed to sleep in the same room as their children over 12, detainees were awakened by light during regular sleep checks, and adults were given limited information about counsel.

Following the hunger strike, state Sen. Schwank wrote Wolf asking for his assistance in resolving the licensure issue. “Prolonged ambiguity serves no one,” Schwank wrote in a September 2016 letter, which she says Wolf did not respond to.

But prolonged ambiguity is exactly what’s happened.

“Berks County Residential Center continues to operate while pending appeal of our revocation of its license,” Pa. DHS Press Secretary Colin Day said via email Wednesday. “The Department of Human Services has investigated every allegation presented, conducts regular unannounced inspections, and to date has not found violations that meet requirements for emergency closure.”

Pa. DHS has published more than a dozen inspection reports for the facility since 2013; violations found since 2016 include paperwork, privacy, and medication issues. Day said the agency recently conducted its yearly inspection and did not find any violations that warranted immediate closure.

As the appeal drags on, Aldea has petitioned to intervene in the detention center’s licensing case. If granted, the intervention would allow the introduction of evidence to support the facility’s closure, Bennion of the Free Migration Project said, and give families a voice in the administrative licensing proceeding where they traditionally have had none.

Schwank said DHS’ Miller met with the Senate Democratic Caucus at her request recently and told the group her agency has only found “minor violations” at the facility.

Still, Schwank said she shares concerns expressed by advocates and is scheduled to visit the facility in July with ICE representatives and state Rep. Peter Schweyer — her first visit since she was a commissioner.

Schwank called the separation of children from parents at the border an “abomination” and expressed concern that the Trump administration’s policies on detaining families could mean more people will be moved to Berks.

“The facility may be called to play a different role,” she said.

Wolf’s dilemma

Advocates want the center shut down. The governor wants that, too. But they diverge on how it can be done.

Attorneys at Temple’s Sheller Center for Social Justice released a memo in 2016 detailing how the Wolf administration could legally issue an emergency removal order, which would release the detained families; the federal government would then have to relocate them. Per the Pa. Code, DHS could issue an ERO if they find “evidence of gross incompetence, negligence, misconduct in operating the facility or agency, or mistreatment or abuse of clients, likely to constitute an immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the clients.” Temple cited reports of poor medical care including “a toddler who was vomiting blood [and] was advised to drink hot or cold water” as sufficient.

But the administration says it hasn’t seen the violations that rise to the needed level.

“Governor Wolf has done everything in his power to revoke the license from the Berks County Residential Center, but regardless of any action the state takes, the federal government will continue to operate this facility because the center is run by Berks County in a contract with the federal government,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said by email.

“Governor Wolf urges the Trump Administration to shut this center down, and as he has repeatedly, the governor requests that the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security consider community-based options to serve these families. Governor Wolf believes that the center should no longer detain these families and his administration will continue to pursue the revocation of its state license.”

Bennion said attempts by advocates to force the issue with the governor’s office and Pa. DHS have mostly fallen flat.

“It’s been all over the map, and the Shut Down Berks Coalition has been attempting to engage the governor’s office for the last couple of years,” Bennion said.

Kline added, “I’ve never heard the governor say ‘I talked to ICE about alternatives.’ All I’ve heard him say is ‘I can’t do it,’ and sort of passing the buck when I think as governor he has a lot more power.”

Fetterman, who spoke at a vigil outside the center in April, declined to say if he’s talked to Wolf about closing the facility. His wife Gisele is a Brazilian immigrant who lived undocumented in the U.S. for years before becoming a citizen, and he has pointed to her case often in making his calls for the Berks facility to be shuttered.

“I was proud to stand with the activists during the primary to protest the existence of that facility,” Fetterman said by phone on Tuesday. “I can’t think of anything much more un-American than imprisoning innocent children. I just can’t believe this is a debate or conversation we’re actually having as a country. America is so much better than this.”

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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