The Biden administration is ending the federal immigration contract for a Pennsylvania facility that for years detained migrant families under pervasively abusive conditions. Officials last year emptied the Berks County Residential Center of families, but then converted the site into an adult facility.
But in a major development, Reading Eagle reports that county officials have been informed that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract will end come Jan. 31, 2023. It’s a years-in-the-making victory for families and advocates who’d been steadily calling for an end to any kind of immigration detention at the site.
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“This victory feels like a dream,” said Liliana Perez, who was detained with her daughter at Berks for more than a month. Liliana said that during that month, her child was sick but was never given medical attention by staff, mirroring neglect described at other migrant family jails across the nation. “This detention center created a lot of suffering, and I am overjoyed to see it finally close,” she continued. A parent identified as “Mr. A” in a Freedom for Immigrants statement received by Daily Kos also spent weeks of “uncertainty and anguish” at Berks. “We are happy that now they will have one less place to hold people,” he said.
Berks had been emptied of families by the Biden administration in the spring of 2021, making the first time in many years that the facility—which has been accused of sexual abuses against detained women—had stood empty.
Advocates and lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Casey and state Rep. Manny Guzman, had at the time praised the release of families but urged the permanent closure of the site, with fears swirling that it would again detain vulnerable people in the future. Sure enough, the site was then approved to detain women—despite its record of abuses against women. Both Casey and Guzman now praise the decision to end the contract early next year, and are urging that the site’s doors be shuttered forever.
“Closing the Berks detention center is a long overdue step to deliver justice to the vulnerable migrant families and children who were previously detained there,” Casey said. “For years I have raised concerns about the conditions at Berks to multiple presidential administrations. I have also urged the Department of Homeland Security to close the center for good to ensure that no future family will endure what they did in detention. The job of government is to protect children, not incarcerate them.”
“This long-awaited moment is the result of a lot of work and the joint effort of the community,” Guzman said. “Once again, we see what happens when we as a community form an alliance and fight for what is right for us. I am honored to have been joined by so many of my colleagues to take a stand against ICE and their repulsive practice of subjecting immigrants to human rights violations.”
The Shut Down Berks Coalition and Detention Watch Network said in their joint statement that this is the fourth contract that the Biden administration has terminated. Advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had last year urged the closure of dozens of sites, citing patterns of abusive conditions and reduced population levels due to the pandemic and other factors. However, the administration “has doubled the number of people in detention to nearly 30,000,” advocates have said. Per current TRAC Immigration data, nearly 70% of immigrants in ICE custody have no criminal record at all. “Many more have only minor offenses, including traffic violations.”
“In response to Berks’ ICE detention contract being cut, national and Pennsylvania-based immigrants’ rights advocates are demanding women be released immediately, and the facility be permanently shut down,” the statement said. Instead of releasing immigrants from facilities that have lost their contracts, ICE has often just transferred them elsewhere.
”The administration’s decision to finally end immigration detention at Berks was the right call,” said Freedom for Immigrants interim executive director Layla Razavi in a statement received by Daily Kos. “We expect and urge the Biden administration to follow through with the immediate release of the women who remain detained back to the safety of their families and communities. Moreover, we demand the administration heed the call of hundreds of civil society and community groups to cut more detention contracts. All immigration detention centers deprive people of their dignity, rights, and freedom.”
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While the push to end family detention takes a major step forward, the fight is not yet over