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.

Activists clash with Wolf over operation of immigrant detention center

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jul 3, 2018 6:11 AM

Activists have been calling for the shutdown of the Berks Center for a number of years. (Photo by AP)


(Harrisburg) -- As national attention remains focused on the treatment of undocumented immigrants on the southern border, a group in Pennsylvania is calling attention to a situation closer to home.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition is launching a renewed effort to shutter the Berks County Residential Center, where about 20 migrant families are detained.

Berks is the smallest of the country's three family detention facilities operated by the federal government, and the only one that's not in Texas.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has been calling for its closure for several years.

In 2016, the commonwealth's Department of Human Services declined to renew the federal license it was run under. But a federal judge ordered it to be reinstated, and the situation has been at a standstill ever since.

Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition Executive Director Sundrop Carter, whose group works with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, said the group is now urging Governor Tom Wolf to issue an Emergency Removal Order.

But after a recent meeting with the governor's staff, she said they were disappointed.

"You know considering he has the power to do something and has said that he supports immigrant and refugee communities, it's pretty clear that he has decided he would rather de-facto allow the policy of family detention to continue instead of taking a stand," she said.

Carter acknowledged that the orders are only supposed to be used in cases of immediate danger--but said the Berks situation meets that standard.

"There are hundreds of pages of research that putting children in detention causes immediate and irreparable harm," she said.

The Wolf administration isn't so sure.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Wolf said while the governor supports "community-based options" for families instead of detention, state lawyers don't think Berks meets legal standard for a such an order.

It noted, even if the facility was shut down, detainees would stay in federal government custody, and still might not be moved.

Shut Down Berks and other activist groups are planning additional demonstrations at the facility.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has announced that while it will no longer separate parents and children at the border, it may increase the use of family detention centers like Berks.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has announced it may seek up to 15,000 more beds for undocumented families.

The Berks center holds a little less than 100 people.

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