The Shut Down Berks campaign is a joint effort between Juntos, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and other organizations to shut down the Berks County Residential Center, which is a facility in Berks county that houses immigrant families in an “immoral” way, according to many involved with the campaign.
The Shut Down Berks campaign hosted a fundraiser/benefit concert at South Broad Street’s Boot and Saddle on Sunday afternoon, which featuring Frances Quinlan, lead singer and songwriter from popular local Philadelphia band Hop Along, who played a solo headlining set. The Shut Down Berks campaign is a joint effort between Juntos, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and other organizations to shut down the Berks County Residential Center, a facility in Berks County that houses immigrant families in an “immoral” way, according to many involved with the campaign. The facility is more specifically located in Leesport, Pennsylvania, just northwest of Reading.
Hardwork Movement, a band who also hails from Philadelphia, opened the show for Quinlan. The performance started early — at 4 p.m. — in an effort to get children and families to go to the show.
The coalition is calling on Gov. Wolf to issue an Emergency Removal Order on BCRC, which it sees as the most likely way of getting the facility shut down.
An ERO is the mechanism by which residents are removed from a facility, according to a memo from Temple University’s Sheller Center for Social Justice. They are issued by the state’s Department of Human Services. EROs are typically utilized on facilities such as nursing homes or daycares that are deemed to unsafe or detrimental to the health of those who inhabit it. For instance, in 2010, the Pennsylvania DHS used an ERO on the Walnut Grove Assembly of God child daycare center, when it found children were left unsupervised and left to wander in an area with rusty nails, a cement ditch and gasoline canisters, according to the Sheller Center memo. In 2015, the memo said, another ERO was issued for patients at Liberty Manor Personal Care Home after two staff members were arrested for stealing residents’ medication and the facility could not provide documentation that another qualified administrator was available to oversee the facility’s operation.
The coalition feels an ERO would also be an appropriate action to take on BCRC because it is, as members of the the coalition see it, a center that negatively contributes to the health of the people it houses for extended periods of time, many of which are children. Some children have been held at the facility for up to two years.
Evidence shows facilities like BCRC “cause long-term harm on families’ physical and mental health — especially when we’re talking about children,” said Jasmine Rivera, coordinator with the Shut Down Berks Campaign.
“Even if these centers were just doing that,” Rivera said, referring to the extended periods of time children and families are held at the center, “the reality is there are documented abuses going on at the center.”
The Sheller Center memo warns that “the conditions at Berks similarly constitute an immediate and serious danger to the detained children and their families.” It highlights a few specific alleged incidents that have occured since it opened in 2014, which include allowing chronic health problems to go untreated in the facility. Examples include the following:
- “a six year old with a severe dental condition that has been ignored since September 2015 despite the child being sent to the emergency room from resulting complications”
- “two children reporting feeling distressed by an incident in which a child collapsed and appeared to stop breathing, yet received no help from nearby staff”
- a “three-year-old child who vomited blood was refused medical care by Berks staff for four days before she was taken to a hospital.
The most egregious incident that happened at the center was the rape of a 19-year-old woman by one of the facility’s guards. The guard, 41-year-old Daniel Sharkey, was convicted of institutional sexual assault in April 2016.
“If that’s not grounds enough for shutting down the center, what is?” Rivera asked. “Do we have to wait for someone to die?”
Sundrop Carter, executive director at the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, said that ideally, the U.S. should “treat people with dignity and respect and have a rational immigration policy that allows people to come into this country” instead of criminalizing immigrants. She repeatedly referred to the detention facility as a “jail.”
“They’re not being beaten or denied food or shelter,” she said, “but it’s still a jail without freedom of movement.”
A better alternative to BCRC, Carter believes, would be to have all the detained immigrants live with their families or sponsors in the United States — something that, according to Carter, the overwhelming majority have.
Inhumane treatment aside, the Sheller Center memo says the BCRC’s license to operate is “currently invalid” because it improperly houses children and adults together.
“Under Pennsylvania law,” the memo says, “children under the age of 9 and those who have not been committed to a facility by state court order are not permitted to be detained in a secure facility. Berks is violating the requirements of Flores [v. Lynch, a 2016 court decision] because it continues to detain children in a facility that cannot be licensed by Pennsylvania.” As a result, the memo says, not only would issuing an ERO against BCRC not violate any federal laws, it would actually “bring the federal government into compliance with state and federal law.”
BCRC is one of only three facilities like it in the country. The other two are in Texas. It’s also the only one that is publicly owned because Immigrations and Customs Enforcement leases the facility from Berks County. The two in Texas are privately owned.
Interestingly, a September 2016 report from the United States’ Department of Homeland Security recommended against the detention of families at family residential centers such as BCRC.
“[D]etention is never in the best interest of children,” the report reads. “DHS should discontinue the general use of family detention, reserving it for rare cases when necessary following an individualized assessment of the need to detain because of danger or flight risk that cannot be mitigated by conditions of release.”
When asked for comment, the governor’s office provided the following statement via Pennsylvania DHS press secretary Colin Day: “The Department of Human Services cannot issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO) unless it finds misconduct by the facility that causes immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the children. DHS conducts regular unannounced inspections and has not found grounds for an ERO. Further, Berks County and the federal government have said that they would continue to operate the facility even without a state license. Because the facility operates under a contract with the federal government, and the residents are in the custody of the federal government, the commonwealth has no authority to unilaterally move them to another location. If the commonwealth did issue an ERO, the families would likely remain in detention unless ICE and the courts agree that they can be moved.”
Furthermore, Day placed the blame on the Trump administration for allowing the facility to remain open.
“Governor Wolf urges the Trump Administration to shut this center down, and, as he has [said] repeatedly, the governor requests that the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security consider community-based options to serve these families while they await immigration proceedings.”
Day also stated that “Governor Wolf has already attempted to revoke the license from the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC), but regardless of any action the state takes, the federal government will continue to operate this facility because the center is run by Berks County in a direct contract with the federal government.”
The Review also reached out to ICE for comment, asking about the conditions of the facility and whether it can confirm or deny whether the alleged incidents mentioned in the Sheller memo actually took place. Their response ignored the questions about whether the incidents took place. But regarding the conditions, ICE Public Affairs Officer Adrian Smith provided an email that stated “The Berks Family Residential Center was developed to provide a safe, secure and humane environment for families as they go through the immigration process,” and that the center is “an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity as families await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries.”
The artists who performed on Sunday offered statements in a press release.
“I didn’t know a center as troubling as this one existed right here in Pennsylvania, that children are essentially being locked up, imprisoned,” said Quinlan. “We have to do our best to see that immigrant families are protected and treated with respect and compassion.”
“As artists, we feel that we have a responsibility to speak to the times,” said Sterling Duns of Hardwork Movement. “There are people who don’t see the harm and trauma they are causing by not honoring and holding sacred the lives of immigrant families. We want our presence at this show, along with the presence of everyone in attendance, to make a statement that we are committed to holding sacred the lives of immigrant families.
Rivera was happy to see so many new people joining the cause at the concert, and encouraged everybody in the audience to contact the governor’s office via twitter at @GovernorTomWolf or by phone at (717) 787–2500 to tell Wolf to have the facility closed.
“I know you’ve all seen the news and every attack that has been happening to the immigrant community,” Rivera told the audience while gracing the stage of Boot and Saddle, “but we have an opportunity right here in Pennsylvania to start pushing back.”