State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

The State House Sound Bites Podcast is now called State of the State and is a part of PA Post, a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization to hold Pennsylvania’s government accountable to its citizens.

Advocates seek audience with Wolf, implore him to close immigration facility

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 13, 2016 10:16 PM

Protesters on Martha's Vineyard in August, trying to get a vacationing Barack Obama's attention. (Photo by AP)

A small coalition of immigrant rights advocates are trying to get an audience with Governor Tom Wolf.

In a letter, which they left for Wolf in the state Capitol on Thursday, they urged him to officially shut down the Berks County Residential Center.

Inside that center are immigrant families. There are about 90 people total, largely from Central America. Many are mothers and children, and all are being held while they complete the process for asylum in the US.

Berks is one of just three such facilities in the country--the other two are in Texas. All of them are part of a federal immigration program, but are run by the municipalities in which they're located.

Advocate and immigration attorney David Bennion said conditions in Berks, at least, are inhumane.

"There was an institutional rape, there was a shigella outbreak..." he ticked off. "One of the consistent reports that Human Rights First and others have reported is a lack of adequate medical attention and mental health care."

Berks is also operating without a license. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services didn't renew it when it expired in February. However, the county appealed and the facility has remained open for the duration of the case. A hearing is scheduled for November 7.

Meanwhile, the families are still incarcerated.

The governor's administration has opposed the center in various capacities in the past.

Spokesman Jeffery Sheridan said that apart from revoking the center's license, the administration has urged various federal agencies to consider other options to house the families while their asylum requests are processed.

Sheridan also noted that "child mental health experts, court rulings, and previous federal policy all support the principle that these children should be served in a non-secure setting."

Yvonne Marlier, with the Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network, said the governor has the capacity to fix the situation himself.

"They are not licensed to be holding mothers and children. They're not equipped to be doing that," she said. "The governor has the power to shut it down, to say we're no longer licensing it, because it's not a place where these people should be."

Bennion agreed.

"Issuing the emergency removal order is actually mandated under state law under certain conditions, he said. "We believe those conditions are met here."

Published in News, State House Sound Bites

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