By Jasmine Rivera
Families should not be in prison. This should be a simple concept, a moral guidepost that anyone could support.
But for five years Pennsylvania has had the dishonor of being home to one of three immigrant family prisons in the country.
Furthermore, in 2019 the Trump administration has been openly and determinedly pushing for the expansion of family detention, despite the fact that it violates state and federal law. And in their continued efforts, they have used Pennsylvania’s family prison- the Berks County Detention Center- as the model for family detention.
Since 2015, the Shut Down Berks Coalition has called on the state of Pennsylvania to end family detention, knowing that a win in our state will impact the national fight.
Specifically, the coalition has called on Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller to immediately issue an Emergency Removal Order and take steps to close the only publicly-owned immigrant family detention center in the country.
I am a mother, and like any parent, I would do whatever it took to keep my child safe and provide for her a better future. These families are in prison for doing exactly that.
They are people from all over the world looking to keep their children safe, and most of those families have come from Latin America. This is a Latinx issue, an immigration issue and a human rights issue.
Every day families are held, unlawfully, in this prison, which is a direct violation of their rights and an embarrassment to our state.
That is why we must listen to what those families have been imprisoned at the Berks County Detention Center have been telling us. They are the true experts of how heinous and immoral family detention is.
Karen, a mother who was held for nearly two years with her son said: “My son had 2 suicide attempts in Berks. With the string of his I.D. he told me if he was going to hang himself, throw himself out the window, if he couldn’t leave. For his birthday, he said he’d throw himself out the window. I told him, ‘You’re going to get hurt.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll be hurt but then I’ll just run away.’ He saw psychologists, they said he was fine, that he was just making it up. A lot of things happened. It was very hard.”
Christian, a teenager who was held at Berks for almost two years said “I know the Governor of Pennsylvania has the power to shut down the center, and I ask him to reconsider and think of the children locked up in there, suffering and unable to sleep because they’re being continuously harassed throughout the night. They have to follow so many rules as if they were criminals. They’re living like criminals in there, they have no freedom to enjoy their childhood as they should. I want to ask him to become aware of what’s happening and think about what would happen if that was his family, his kids in there. I know he wouldn’t want to see them in there, suffering.”
This is a struggle of not just our values as Pennsylvanians, but as a country.
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Wolf should use all of his power to stand up to the Trump administration, to stem the push to make indefinitely detaining families in concentration camps the national norm.
With such vicious attacks on the immigrant community, with ICE traumatizing and even killing children, inaction in these times is complicity. That is why community, doctors, lawyers, over 100 community organizations, faith leaders, local, state and federal legislators, presidential candidates and most recently, the state Auditor General, have called for the closure of this family prison.
Gov. Wolf, Lt. Gov. Fetterman and Secretary Teresa Miller, you need to issue an Emergency Removal Order now, before these families spend their holidays in the family prison unlawfully operating in your state.
Do not let family detention be your legacy.
Jasmine Rivera writes on behalf of the Shutdown Berks Coalition, an advocacy group pushing for the shutdown of the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pa. The facility is leased by Berks County government to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and is one of only three such facilities nationwide.