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February 11, 2016

Berks will Lose its License, but Facility has Appealed

On Friday February 5th the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) received notice that the Berks County Residential Center—one of three family immigration detention centers in the United States— appealed the department’s decision to not renew Berks’s operating license.

Berks was licensed as a child residential facility for dependent and delinquent children, but it is in fact operating as a “family residential facility” serving only “refugee immigrant families.” Translation: children who are neither dependent nor delinquent are being confined in a facility with unrelated adults—a potential health and safety hazard for children. The families there have all been held for upwards of a month, and one for over six months. This includes several families picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the January raids.

Detention is not a suitable environment for children, particularly asylum seeking children who have often suffered traumatic experiences in their home countries and on the journey to the United States, so in October 2015 PA DHS rightfully notified Berks that it would not be renewing its license.

But a PA DHS spokesperson stated that the facility can continue to operate so long as the appeal is underway. However, the Pennsylvania code under which Berks has been licensed authorizes the Department of Human Services to seek an emergency removal of residents where “misconduct in the operation of the facility” has been found.

Many of the children are suffering from health problems associated with detention. Mothers said their children are “desperate and no longer want to eat.” When raising concerns about their children’s health with ICE officers at Berks, the responses have been callous. One handwritten note from an ICE officer said, “Your attorney filed a motion… requesting a temporary stay of your removal. If you wish to have your attorney withdraw that motion please do so.” Another mother wrote, “My daughter has had diarrhea for three weeks, I took her to the doctor but they did not give her any medication.” She received a handwritten response from an ICE officer that said, “Thank you! You may dissolve your case at any time and return to your country.”

Given that PA DHS has already found Berks is operating contrary to its license, and that the health and well-being of vulnerable minors are at stake, the department should seek an emergency removal of all families currently detained at the facility. 

Last June Secretary Johnson said, “long-term detention is an inefficient use of [Department of Homeland Security’s] resources.”  In the Flores case challenging whether children can be detained with their parents, the Government has maintained that they are processing families for release within an average of 20 days. The protracted length of detention for the families detained at Berks speaks to the contrary.

The Obama Administration should close the Berks facility immediately and release the detained families so that they can seek asylum in the community. But PA DHS need not wait for the administration to act to protect vulnerable children and families from further harm and seek their emergency removal from Berks.