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Immigrant families released, future of Pa. detention center remains unclear

After families are released to sponsors, local and federal officials are not sharing details about what happens next to the county-owned facility.

  • Anthony Orozco
A 12 hour protest was held in front of the Berks County Residential Center July 17, calling for the release of immigrant families detained inside.

 Anthony Orozco / PA Post/WITF

A 12 hour protest was held in front of the Berks County Residential Center July 17, calling for the release of immigrant families detained inside.

UPDATE: DHS officials have shared with the Washington Post plans for future use of the Berks County Residential Center. This story has been updated.

(Bern Township) — Seven families — 25 people in all — who had been held by immigration authorities at the Berks County Residential Center have been released to live with sponsors across the nation.

Their removal from detention does not mean they are granted asylum. They will continue their immigration cases while living with relatives and others willing to house them rather than in federal custody.

“So this is a great move; it’s not the end of the road,” said Amy Maldonado, a lawyer working pro bono with the Reading-based nonprofit ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center. “We don’t know what’s happening yet but we’re very happy to see the Biden administration stop jailing children unnecessarily.”

Since 2001, immigrant parents and children have been detained at the center after entering the country to request asylum, as required by the U.S. asylum law. The county-owned facility is operated by the county under a contract between Berks County and the federal government.

The center has been a target of protests since the Obama Administration, with advocacy groups calling for the families to be released and the center to be closed.

And though the events of the weekend are a turning point in the story of the center, what happens next in terms of Berks’s contract with the federal government, the county-owned facility and the federal policy of family detention remains to be seen.

On Sunday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey noted the release of detained families, sharing a tweet from ALDEA executive director Bridget Cambria.

“The next step is to permanently close the center so that no future family or child is forced to go through what these families have endured,” Casey went on to say.

But it is uncertain what the next step will actually be.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the nation’s other two family detention centers in Texas will be converted into “reception centers” while families receive a COVID-19 health screening and arrange living situations with sponsors already in the U.S.

No plans have yet been officially announced for the Berks Center, though there were some rumblings before families were released Friday.

Last week, the Reading Eagle reported that Berks County Commissioners approved a letter of support for a white paper proposal for the center, which signals a potential change in operations. No details were made public about what the white paper contained, according to the report.

Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, the lone Democrat on the three-person board, opposed the letter. Barnhardt said Monday that he was not at liberty to discuss the white paper proposal.

The Washington Post Thursday reported DHS officials are considering making the Berks Center into a holding facility strictly for women migrants. In their Thursday meeting, Berks County Commissioners said they cannot share information about the proposed use for the center.

WITF submitted a Right-to-Know request to Berks County to obtain copies of the letter and proposal. The request was characterized as “misdirected” by the county’s open records office and was denied.

Berks Family Residential Center

Katie Meyer / WITF

The outside of the Berks Family Residential Center. Non-authorized personnel are not permitted on the grounds.

Barnhardt supported the detention center for years but changed his position in 2019, saying the Trump Administration was “changing the immigration landscape in a negative way.” He also previously had discussions with the state about converting the center for another use.

Berks County holds a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that brings around $1 million annually for use of the county-owned center, and employs around 60 employees.

Berks officials deferred all questions regarding the center to ICE officials, as did a statewide spokesperson for the White House in regards to the policy of family detention.

ICE officials did not answer questions about the future of the contract with Berks and the policy of family detention Monday.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, is the director of the Center For Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law, said it is important that the public understand that family detention was not a necessity.

“There is no legal requirement that families be detained,” Wadhia said. “Empirical data shows us that families have a very high appearance rate in immigration court and if you’re seeking asylum, that appearance rate is up to 96 percent.”

“Data also shows us that the trauma endured by a child by spending even one day in detention is so high,” Wadhia said.

In another move to keep families together through the immigration process, the Biden Administration announced Monday it will allow for families separated under Trump policies to reunite in the U.S. or in their country of origin.

Though the releasing of the families is a milestone, advocates are wary to celebrate too early.

ALDEA released a written statement Monday that expressed cautious optimism and relief.

“We hope, with caution, that this is a first step towards removing federal law enforcement from the great responsibility of caring for children,” the statement said. “We hope this is the beginning of the realization of the administration’s promise to end the catastrophic mistake of family detention.”

The Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of organizations that have aimed to close the family detention center, celebrated the news Monday. In a written statement, the coalition credited grassroots activism and nonprofit work for the change.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition protested outside the Berks County Residential Center in November.

But the coalition said it is aware that the administration of President Joe Biden is reopening other immigration centers around the country. For the coalition and others like ALDEA, they want to see the center closed and the Biden Administration to make it policy to not detain families.

“As we celebrate that these families were released, we also remain on high alert,” the Shut Down Berks statement said. “As much as we hope this is a step in the right direction, we are acutely aware that at any point more families can be brought to this prison and that the same cycle of abuse would repeat itself. Until this prison is permanently shut down and until ICE and the Department of Homeland Security stops using this facility, the fight is not over.”

Anthony Orozco is part of  the “Report for America” program  — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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