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Immigration advocates seek release–not transfer–of women still in Berks detention center

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
People protest outside of the Berks County Residential Center on Dec. 7, 2022.

 Jeremy Long / WITF

People protest outside of the Berks County Residential Center on Dec. 7, 2022.

As the Berks County immigration detention center prepares to close early next year, advocates and immigration lawyers are working for the release of the women who are still detained there.

Listen to Special Projects Editor Tim Lambert talk with former WITF journalist Anthony Orozco, who covered the Berks County Residential Center, about the significance of its closure. 

About 50 people gathered in front of the Berks County Residential Center to make their voices heard. The vigil was organized by a coalition of immigration groups, including the Shut Down Berks Coalition, Center for Immigration at Cabrini University, CASA Pennsylvania, Make the Road PA and Aldea, the People’s Justice Center.

“We’re not done. We’re not going to finish until every woman here is free and not transferred to another location,” said Armando Jimenez, a leader of Make the Road PA.

Jeremy Long / WITF

Bridget Cambria, direct of Aldea-PJC speaks outside of the Berks County Residential Center on Dec. 7, 2022.

Bridget Cambria, immigration attorney and executive director of Aldea, said she feels positive that a substantial number of the women detained inside the prison will be released from custody. But Cambria is concerned about three women who could be transferred due to obstacles in their legal cases. Aldea PJC is providing legal support for those cases.

“This facility is, by and large, young women, we’re talking 18 years old,” Cambria said. “So these are not women who are appropriate to suffer that kind of compounded trauma, to be moved to a place that is different, scarier where they’re alone, or they’re away from their attorney, or away from people that they have found support in.”

A transfer to another immigration facility is not only emotionally and physically harmful for a detainee – it could also be devastating for the person’s legal situation, Cambria said.

The women held at the Berks facility do not have criminal records, according to Cambria, who is providing legal counsel to 30 women detained there. Many are from South America and are seeking asylum.

“There’s an exorbitant number of victims of sexual violence in this facility… an exorbitant number of victims of domestic and inter familial violence,” Cambria said. “And these are all women that were brave enough to speak about it with immigration officials and asylum officers, which is really hard for a teen or young person to do.”

Shut Down Berks Coalition is another group calling on ICE to release detainees inside the detention center. The group is providing assistance to released detainees.

Jasmine Rivera, a leader from the coalition, said the group will continue to call for the closure of other detention centers in Pennsylvania, and will advocate for the soon-to-be empty Berks detention facility to be converted into a center that provides human services.

“There’s lots of ideas, there’s lots of need, and ultimately it should be the Berks County people, the residents of Berks County, who have a say in what that facility is used for, because they know what’s best for their own communities,” Rivera said in an interview last week.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition held a news conference the day after Berks County announced it would close the center. A woman who was released from custody – whose name was concealed to protect her identity – described her six months in the facility. She was not allowed to have visitors and calls were restricted. She said the staff would do night rounds around bedtime and  shine a flashlight on the detainees’ faces. They would also set off loud fire alarms at dawn.

“I feel that I left part of my life in that place,” she said.

Immigration rights advocates are concerned that the county will continue to use the space as a correctional facility, which is what happened with the Moshannon Valley Processing Center in Philipsburg. It used to be a federal prison until it closed and later reopened in 2021 as an ICE facility privately owned by GEO Group.

Berks County commissioners have not publicly shared any plans for the Berks County Residential Center building, and have declined to comment beyond the statement they released last week.

In a Dec. 1 meeting, Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach vowed to support the 60 employees who work for the detention center. Leinbach made comments criticizing immigration rights advocacy groups who referred to “violence” against immigrants in the facility.

“It is shameful, because it’s a reflection on the men and women that have worked there and have been good people,” Leinbach said.

In 2015, a staff member who worked at the Leesport detention center was convicted of sexual assault for forcing a Honduran woman to have sex with him. For almost a decade immigration rights groups and former detainees have organized vigils and protests calling for the detention site to be shut down.

In a statement, ICE said it is ending its contract with the county because the center is “operationally unnecessary” and  tax dollars could be put to better use by “housing noncitizens in other centers offering better performance, efficiency, and economy of scale.”

“The decision to let the Berks facility’s contract expire reflects the agency’s current operational requirements and we appreciate our long-standing relationship with the facility and its staff,” said David O’Neill, Acting Field Operations Director for the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations office in Philadelphia. 

There are three other ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania: Moshannon Valley Processing Center, Pike County Correctional Facility and Clinton County Correctional Facility.


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