#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)

#ShutDownBerks: The Mothers of Berks and their children do not want to die

Yesterday, ICE agents took a 25-year-old Honduran woman and her five-year-old son from Berks County “Residential” Center, dumped them on a plane and sent them back to Honduras. The two fled Honduras after the mother witnessed her cousin being murdered, after which local gangs threatened her life and that of her child. She and her son fled to the United States. They were detained initially in Texas, and then sent to Berks, in Pennsylvania, where they’ve spent a little more than the last 16 months. That means her son has spent a little over a quarter of his life imprisoned in Berks for the crime of living with a mother who only wants the best for her son.

Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey spent yesterday trying to prevent the deportation, to no avail: “If they are really, with limited resources, going to focus on 5-year-olds instead of criminals, what kind of homeland security is that?” Attorney Bridget Cambria spent yesterday in court trying to protect the child: “We applied for the child this week who had qualified for a special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) and brought it to ICE and the courts and we were in court today. We literally were arguing to include this child while immigration was watching the plane take off.” This is just another tragic story of yet another mother and child in Berks (or Dilley or Karnes), fleeing abuse, abused by the State. But then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stood up this morning and explained it all. No one deported that woman and that child, they were deported by something called the law: “You have to understand that ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, John Kelly, I don’t, we don’t deport people. The law deports people.”

The law deports people.

The law does not deport people. People with guns deport people. The law does not persuade a terrified woman and her terrorized five-year-old son to move from the misery of Berks to the hell awaiting her in Honduras. The law does not terrorize children and then call the architecture of terror a “residential center” or a “family center”. Men with guns do all that.

Someone once wrote,

“The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies, the priests lie.
What are these lies?
They mean that the country wants to die …
These lies mean that something in the nation wants to die.”

The Mothers of Berks do not want to die, they are not the something in the nation that wants to die. Last October, 17 U.S. Senators, including Senator Casey, sent a letter to the previous Homeland Security Secretary urging him to close Berks, for the sake of the women and children inside Berks … and outside as well. This Tuesday, Senator Casey led nine other senators and 13 members of the House of Representatives in calling for the release of four mothers and their children, ranging in age from 3 to 16 years. Wednesday, he received his response. The law deported a 25-year-old woman and her 5-year-old son. Not us, not us, the law. You must understand. #ShutDownBerks

(Image Credit 1: Grid Philly / Jameela Walgren) (Image Credit 2: PRI / Dan Carino)