#ShutDownBerks: Pennsylvania’s Auditor General calls Berks a jail and urges it be shut down

For the past six months, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been conducting an audit of Berks County “Residential” Center, or BCRC, one of the three so-called family immigrant detention centers in the United States. Yesterday, he issued his report. The report ends with two recommendations, all in caps in the report: “1. IMMIGRATING FAMILIES SHOULD NOT BE HELD IN BCRC AND SHOULD INSTEAD BE RELEASED INTO COMMUNITIES WITH OVERSIGHT AND SUPPORT. 2. AS LONG AS BCRC REMAINS OPEN, THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES MUST CONTINUE TO CONDUCT MONTHLY INSPECTIONA TO OVERSEE THE TREATMENT OF THE CHILDREN BEING DETAINED THERE.” The Auditor General chose to put those two recommendations in capital letters, to make sure we see and hear the message. Shut down Berks. SHUT DOWN BERKS. #ShutDownBerks. Can you hear me now?

The report opens noting that, apart from those who are members of “an indigenous native tribe”, everyone else is “part of Pennsylvania’s immigration history”. Further, “seeking asylum is not a crime. Neither is asking the U.S. government for permission to live on its soil and become a contributing member of its society. Yet the parents and children being held at BCRC are treated like prisoners despite not being accused of any crimes.” Also, “facilities such as BCRC should not exist.” The report then launches into the details concerning Berks, details many of which we have described before: children being kept in violation of limits; mothers being abused, mothers and children suffering isolation, trauma, deprivation. Repeatedly, in the report and at the press, the Auditor General emphasized that seeking asylum is not a crime and is not part of the criminal justice process in any way whatsoever. At the press conference, DePasquale noted, “No one being held at the Berks facility is facing any criminal charges, but the center still essentially functions as a jail where adults and children, sometimes mere babies, are detained”.

The report details the experience, in October 2019, of the Connors family, an English couple with their three-month-old son who were vacationing in Canada, got lost on a back road, accidentally entered the United States, were apprehended, and shipped off to Berks. When the Connors arrived at Berks, there were five families with children under five years old. Because the Connors’ child was so young, ICE offered them a deal, family separation. Eileen Connors said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the suggestion and rejected it out of hand. Everything was dirty and broken. When their child’s clothing needed washing, there were no replacements. Eileen Connors asked, “How am I supposed to keep my baby warm in this horrible cold?” “All they tell me is to put a hat on him.” They say, “Put a hat on him.” We say, “Shut it down!”

For the last five years, repeatedly, the mothers of Berks have called for justice, beginning with shutting down Berks. Repeatedly, they have said they are not criminals, they are asylum seekers. Repeatedly they have said, no human being deserves to be abused. Repeatedly they have said, children need and deserve love, not abandonment and abuse. Repeatedly they have said, we know justicethis is injustice!

 U.S. Senators have agreedPsychologists have agreedLocal activists, human rights advocates, attorneys and just plain folk have agreed. Recently, even Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, who previously supported Berks because of its supposed economic benefit, said “he no longer supported maintaining the detention center, citing concern that President Trump’s administration is `changing the immigration landscape in a negative way.’” Pennsylvania’s Governor wants to shut Berks down and convert it into a treatment space, a healing place. How many more reports, documents, testimonies are needed? “We are well past the time to close the Berks center.” Shut Berks down. Facilities such as Berks “should not exist.” Shut Berks down! SHUT BERKS DOWN! #ShutBerksDown!

(Image Credit: Grid Philly) (Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer / Charles Fox)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.