Immigration activists call on Wolf to release detainees from ICE center in Berks County

(Garen M./Flickr)

(*Updated, April 2, 07:50 a.m., with comment from the Wolf administration)

Immigration activists are calling on the Wolf administration to order the release of migrant families, including children, housed in an ICE detention center in Berks County, saying residents are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 epidemic will inevitably result in a human rights crisis in Berks and other Pennsylvania prisons unless the Commonwealth takes decisive action to release people,” the advocates, who include the Shut Down Berks Coalition and Tsuru for Solidarity, said in a statement Wednesday.

During a virtual press briefing, the activists, joined by Pennsylvania state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, and Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, reiterated the health and safety dangers facing migrants detained at the center in Leesport, Pa., outside Reading.

“I feel compelled to speak out even though this is 75 miles out of my jurisdiction,” Rabb said. “This immigration issue is not connected just to one community. The Legislature is tone deaf to this issue, it is bipartisan silence.

Only Wolf has the power to release those migrants, Rabb said, adding that “It has taken a pandemic to do what should have been done years ago.”

DePasquale calls for shutdown of ICE detention center in Berks County

Over the weekend, a U.S. District judge in Los Angeles ordered the federal government officials to release nearly 4,000 migrant children in its care, KQED News reported.

A federal judge in Harrisburg similarly ruled in favor of releasing 10 people held by federal immigration authorities in three detention centers across Pennsylvania. The state branch of ACLU sued, arguing that they were at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their age or medical conditions, or both.

Immigration advocates have been pressuring Wolf for years to shut down the 96-bed center, which is owned by Berks County, and leased by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s one of only three such centers nationwide where migrants and asylum-seekers, including children, are held, while their immigration status is adjudicated in the federal court system.

“Wolf has the chance to exercise his authority to shut down this inhumane system and help people who show no threat to the United States,” Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym said. “A global pandemic shows that ICE is ill-equipped to handle this situation”

The administration has said it’s been trying to get Berks County to end its lease with the federal government, and that, to date, an emergency removal order has not been applicable. The county has also rejected those entreaties. Berks county nets about $1.3 million a year from the center, providing jobs to 59 county employees, WITF-FM reported last fall.

*In a statement, Ali Fogarty, a spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services, said the administration’s position remains “that the federal government should cease operations of this facility. We have already stated that the Wolf administration cannot unilaterally shut down this facility without immediate threat to health and safety, and if the department issued an emergency removal order, the detained families would remain in federal custody.

*”All DHS-licensed facilities have been instructed to closely follow CDC and DOH recommendations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We encourage you to contact Berks County and the federal government regarding operations and mitigation efforts at this facility,” Fogarty said.

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Hiro Nishikawa and Satsuki Ina, who appeared on behalf of Tsuru for Solidarity, a network of Japanese-American social justice advocates, pointed to their own experiences in American internment camps in World War II.

Nishikawa said he was held in an internment camp from age four to seven. He suffered from chicken pox and other illnesses.

“The camp lead to problems and issues that are imbedded in my head,” he said. “My parents suffered PTSD as well.”

Ina, who said she also suffered from chicken pox while in custody as a child, said she worried about the long-term effect of custody on the children and families in the Berks County center.

“When I think about these children, I do not think it is fair and I think about how they will be affected and distraught for years,” she said, adding that, “When we were disappearing from our homes and incarcerated, there were no protests or leaders. We do not want history to repeat.”

Correspondent Michala Butler, of Harrisburg, is a sophomore communications major at Temple University.