Report: Berks detention center may reopen as women-only migrant facility

    A sign for the Berks County Residential Center. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    (*This story was updated at 3:27 p.m. on 3/4/21 with additional reporting)

    To the frustration of immigration activists, a recently cleared out federal migrant detention center in Berks County may house inmates once more.

    According to an anonymous Department of Homeland Security official in the Washington Post, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is considering turning the Berks County Residential Center outside of Reading into a women-only detention center.

    The facility, which is owned by the Berks County government and is operated together with ICE, has been used to detain families since 2001.

    The 96-bed center holds these migrant families as they await an asylum hearing, which determines whether they can stay in the United States or will be deported.

    The planned reuse of the facility for migrant detention comes nearly a week after President Joe Biden’s administration released the 21 people in the facility, the Capital-Star previously reported.

    In an email, an ICE spokesperson did not confirm or deny the report, and did not reply to specific questions about the center or its former detainees.

    After the announcement, Shutdown Berks Coalition, a grassroots group of activists who want the facility closed, said they were cheered by the news but noted how quickly the success could be rolled back.

    “We know all too well that ICE operates without accountability and without oversight,” the group said in a statement Monday. “As much as we hope this is a step in the right direction, we are acutely aware that at any point more families can be brought to this prison and that the same cycle of abuse would repeat itself.”

    Coalition coordinator Jasmine Rivera told the Capital-Star Thursday that she was “not surprised, but not happy” with the news. 

    She compared a potential switch of the Berks facility from a family to a women’s detention center to a similar switch at Hutto Residential Center in Texas. Amid lawsuits over the treatment of children at Hutto, the center only held women starting in 2009. But abuse continued, according to the Guardian.

    Citing Hutto, Rivera argued that the only way to prevent abuse was for Biden to shutdown the center, as is within his power. The empty facility could then be used to provide human services, such as drug rehab.

    “We need ICE, we need DHS, to walk away to stop using this facility. Using this facility for any kind of detention of any immigrant is unacceptable,” Rivera said.

    Berks County officials had hinted earlier this week that a plan for the facility was in the works, according to the Reading Eagle, but hadn’t released details and deferred comment to ICE.

    The detention of immigrant families, which is not legally required, has occurred under presidents from both parties. Immigration experts have argued it is unnecessary, and doctors have argued that it harms children’s mental health.

    Berks has also been the site of specific incidents, such as a guard who was charged with sexually assaulting an 19-year old detainee in 2015.