Pa.'s infamous Berks County immigrant detention center will close. Will the 40 women inside be transferred elsewhere? | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pa.'s infamous Berks County immigrant detention center will close. Will the 40 women inside be transferred elsewhere?

click to enlarge Pa.'s infamous Berks County immigrant detention center will close. Will the 40 women inside be transferred elsewhere? (2)
Shut Down Berks Coalition
Members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition protest the Pa. immigrant detention facility in front of the White House.

As advocates statewide celebrate the recently announced closure of an infamous Pennsylvania immigrant detention center, they're also demanding the release of the individuals currently held inside.

"We celebrate this victory but remain steadfast in once again demanding the immediate release of women from this prison; we will not accept the transfer of people currently detained at Berks to other immigrant prisons," according to a statement from the Shut Down Berks Coalition.

On Nov. 30, Berks County officials announced the end of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s contract to detain migrants at Berks County Residential Center. 

The Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of civic organizations dedicated to closing the Berks County detention center, has been amplifying allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the detention center since 2015.

“Since 2015, when the sexual assault of a mother at Berks by a staff member sparked outrage among community members, the Shut Down Berks Coalition has been demanding the permanent closure of the prison,” the coalition writes in a statement. “We celebrate this victory but remain steadfast in once again demanding the immediate release of women from this prison. The fight to close the Berks Detention Center is not finished until every woman is free.”

The Berks County detention facility opened in 2001 as one of three nationwide facilities where ICE detained asylum-seeking families with children. After the detention center was emptied of families in 2021, the Berks County Commissioners voted to restructure the detention center to only hold women seeking asylum, despite vocal opposition.

Following the recent announcement that the Berks County detention center will cease to function in January, advocates say, four to six women have been released and more are expected.

In a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper, David O’Neill, ICE’s acting Philadelphia Field Office director of enforcement and removal operations, says the agency “let the Berks facility’s contract expire” because it was no longer operationally necessary. The ICE statement says the agency expects the cases of about 40 women seeking asylum who are currently held in Berks County to be adjudicated before the end of January when the contract expires.

“If there are cases that have not been adjudicated, the detainees will be transferred to other facilities in a safe and humane manner,” the agency said.

According to their website, ICE also detains migrants at three other facilities in Pennsylvania, the nearest of which is Moshannon Valley Processing Center in Philipsburg, Pa.

Casa San Jose, an organization serving Pittsburgh’s Latino community, tells City Paper they celebrate the imminent closure of the detention center in Berks County and would like to see the release of all individuals currently detained by ICE.

“The detention, for any amount of time, of any human being that seeks a better life for their family is inhumane,” emergency response coordinator Laura Perkins tells City Paper. “We hope this is the first of many closures of governmental and private immigration detention centers and terminations of contracts with all jails and prisons in Pennsylvania. Today: Berks. Tomorrow: Moshannon Valley. La lucha sigue [the struggle continues].”

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson