Protesters Demanding the Shutdown of Berks County Detention Center

Protesters are demanding the shutdown of Berks County Detention Center.  Ten minutes outside of Reading, the rural town of Leesport contains a sprawling, tree-lined campus of rolling green hills and relatively modern red brick buildings for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and for Berks County. Their purposes are agricultural, as well as educational, and maintenance. More recently, one of these non-descript low buildings has been dedicated to the lucrative services of a federal client: The Berks Detention center warehouses families for ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Last month, Doug Gunn of Shut Down Berks Interfaith Witness came to our monthly Atlantic Coast Quaker Activists meeting to urge us to consider working with his group to close down this illegal detention center for parents and children who have recently crossed the southern border. He told us that most of the people detained inside are children, mostly traveling with their fathers, who have asked for asylum in our country and are either awaiting their status decision or waiting for their time before an immigration judge.

When I arrive at the appointed time for the one-hour monthly vigil, I park near a van full of parishioners from an evangelical church in Harrisburg. They have  formed a group called F.R.E.E and have joined with their pastor to sing, hold protest signs, and chant slogans in the well-shaded grassy area across the street from the minimum security facility, which used to hold children for the local justice system, but is now repurposed for ICE as holding station for children fleeing with one parent. They are mostly from El Salvador, Guatamala, and Nicaragua, often fleeing poverty and violence created by warlords and their criminal gangs, and are all working on creating better lives in a new country.

Song sheets have been provided, and the two dozen gathered sing songs like “We Are Marching In The Light of God” and “Guide My Feet” in English and Spanish in hopes of being heard by the occupants of the building 200 feet away, in hopes of registering our displeasure with Governor Wolf that children languish for months in unnecessary confinement while their case joins the INS backlog. Unnecessary and illegal confinement as it turns out: last year a state agency ruled that Berks, as it is called, is operating outside the parameters of it’s license, and a federal judge has backed that decision. Wolf has the power to close the facility with something called an ERO, an Emergency Relocation Order, but seems to lack the political will to do it.

A single white state services vehicle watches us from across the driveway, and for a short time a state policeman drives by us and parks under a tree to size up the situation: We’re a diverse mix of interfaith adults, teens and children holding up supplied #ShutDownBerks signs, and right now we’re doing the best call-and-response 27 people can muster:
“What do we want? (“Justice!” Or, “Freedom!”)
“When do we want it?” (“Now!”)

Ordinarily, when a person (or in this case, family) formally requests asylum at an airport or border station, they are given a CF Interview to determine if they have a “Credible Fear” that they will be harmed if they were to be returned to their country of origin. While a CF decision is being made, or if an appeal is lodged, people used to be released to their own recognicance until their date with a court or INS agent.

At the end of the hour, we circle up tightly to prevent our strategy/debriefing session from being electronically overheard. Our organizers from Shut Down Berks and F.R.E.E. want us to know that the current administration has allowed ICE to detain these families for the deterrent effect: once word gets back home that asylum-seekers are detained in one of three American facilities (the other two are in Texas), then perhaps future fleeing parents will think twice about causing their children to spend months or years detained, even with access to green soccer pitches outside. A few months ago, an El Salvadoran girl “celebrated” her Quinceaera without music, cake, relatives or friends, other than the community of detainees she has found here inside Berks.

Perhaps because of Berks County’s larger than average Spanish-speaking population, that sad story got some traction with a local TV news organization, but they aren’t here today, on this sunny but chilly afternoon.

Learn more about these third-Sunday of the month vigils on Facebook at:  https://www.facebook.com/shutdownberks/.

—  Paul Wishengrad, member of ACQA

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