Lawyers call Berks County immigration facility "prison for kids"

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Apr 6, 2015 3:51 AM

Photo by AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Upset with President Barack Obama's immigration policy, about 250 people march to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office with a goal of stopping future deportations on Monday Oct. 14, 2013, in Phoenix. The protesters chanted "no more deportations" and "shut down ICE."

(Reading) -- A Berks County facility that houses families waiting for asylum hearings is at the center of a controversy.

Immigration advocates call the Berks County Residential Center a prison, but the federal agency operating it disputes such a characterization.

It can hold up to 96 people, all of them hoping a judge will give them an opportunity to stay in the United States for good.

Advocates who are trying to shut the facility down say it's not a suitable place for children.

Attorney Matthew Archambeault says it's more like a jail.

He alleges kids can't roam free and calls the food and medical care substandard.

"Give me the best conditions in the best prison in the United States, in the world and put a child in there for a long-term detention, and I'll tell you the conditions are not acceptable, simply for a child being in prison," says Archambeault.

"You can have all the crayons you want and the toys you want, but the mere fact that the Obama administration has decided to place children in prison for a long term period of time in order to secure their deportation is inhumane," he adds.

He's asked state Attorney General Kathleen Kane to investigate and says he may file a lawsuit on behalf of those placed in the residential center.

In a statement, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement says the facilities operate in an open environment, with play rooms, educational services, and access to lawyers.

Beyond complaints about conditions at the Berks County facility, a federal lawsuit on a seperate issue seeks to close its doors for good. 

The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the Obama administration's policy of using residential centers instead of releasing asylum seekers while cases are processed, arguing its designed to intimidate.

A federal judge recently put a temporary halt to the policy while scheduling a full hearing soon.

The full statement from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is below: 

"Family residential centers are an important part of the U.S. government's comprehensive response to the unprecedented spike in illegal migration that occurred last summer.  Family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries. ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and facilitate access to legal counsel.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has broad statutory authority and discretion with regard to the detention and release of removable aliens.  That detention authority is found in sections 235, 236, and 241 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  A number of factors, including but not limited to the procedural posture of the alien's immigration proceedings and the presence or absence of a criminal history impact which statutory provision governs detention in a given case."

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