Lawyers for immigrant children confined in Pennsylvania pending deportation say their detention at Berks County Residential Center is unlawful and are demanding the center be closed.
Led by Philadelphia attorney Matthew Archambeault, the five lawyers contend that BCRC’s state license authorizes residential treatment at the facility in Leesport for children who are delinquent or awaiting a juvenile court finding of delinquency.
“The problem,” the advocates wrote in a letter delivered Tuesday to the office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, “is that none of the [immigrant] children … are delinquent. … They are all refugees seeking asylum here in the United States.”
The facility has been operating for more than a decade but the issue became more pressing among immigrant advocates after last summer’s wave of undocumented children into the country. What had typically been a stay of days or weeks at the center has for some become months of confinement.
No immigrant child there, according to the letter, committed an act that would lead to a finding of delinquency under Pennsylvania law. Rather, they are typically charged with the federal civil offense of illegally entering the United States.
The letter asks Kane to investigate what it calls “the unlawful imprisonment of hundreds of children over the last several years.”
Carolyn Myers, a spokeswoman for Kane, said the AG’s office received the letter and is “reviewing the substance of the allegations contained therein.”
Typically, children housed at Berks are arrested at the southern border and shipped to Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Family residential centers are an important part of the U.S. government’s comprehensive response to the unprecedented spike in illegal migration that occurred last summer,” said ICE-Philadelphia spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell. The centers are “an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries.”
BCRC director Diane Edwards did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The 85-bed Berks facility, which opened in March 2001, is among three family residential centers maintained by ICE. The others are in Texas. All have been targets of immigrant rights groups, which contend it is inhumane to confine families when compliance with a notice to appear in immigration court can be accomplished by less restrictive means, including release with intensive supervision, or electronic monitoring.
According to Berks’ mission statement, it addresses “issues that arise when immigration officers encounter unaccompanied alien children, other minors, and family groups during the course of operations.”
The facility provides education for the children as well as medical and mental health care for the families, which, according to the mission statement, are “mandatorily detained during removal proceedings.”
Before last summer, when tens of thousands of mostly Central American children, some with parents, entered the U.S. illegally, the Berks center typically housed mothers and children for brief stays while ICE worked to place them with family in the United States. In that way, they could live with their families while their immigration cases proceeded.
“The summer of 2014 saw a change in policy in which ICE has refused release of these refugees and has begun to hold them in long-term detention,” wrote Archambeault and his colleagues. “There is a mother and child currently at the BCRC since April 2014. Eight to 10 months of detention of these children is not unheard of any longer.”
One newborn, the lawyers wrote, was 14 days old when she was admitted.
Copies of the letter were sent to: Gov. Wolf; the state Human Services department; Berks County Commissioners; the Berks District Attorney and ICE-Philadelphia’s field office director.In an interview, Archambeault asserted that “long-term detention is clearly not what is contemplated under [the Berks center's] license.” If it is operating under a waiver of the rules, he said, that needs to be clarified.
Archambeault said he is raising these questions now because they are timely, and because BCRC is due to double its capacity later this year.
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Immigrant advocates take aim at Berks center
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