New Trump administration rule would OK indefinite detention of migrant families in Berks facility

200 hundred people gathered in Berks County Friday, July 12, 2019 to protest a immigration detention center outside Reading. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on Wednesday announced that the Trump administration is moving forward with a new rule that will allow for the indefinite detention of migrant families.

The rule would effectively end the Flores settlement, a landmark 1997 order that established certain standards for family detention centers and a 20-day limit for detaining children.

The New York Times reported that the rule “will require approval from a federal judge before it can go into effect, and administration officials said they expect it to be immediately challenged in court.” The final rule is expected to be published Friday.

There are just three family detention centers for migrants in the U.S., including the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pa. Immigration advocates have for decades called for the center to be shuttered, citing what one mother held in Berks called “unbearable” conditions.

Families with children have routinely been held in the center for longer than 20 days, according to immigration attorneys. Women at the facility went on a hunger strike in 2016 after their children became suicidal due to their year-long detention.

ALDEA–The People’s Justice Center — a Reading-based nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants, including those at Berks — tweeted Wednesday that detention centers are not “campus-like,” as McAleenan said.

“Its [sic] prison-like. You are not free to leave. You have no privacy. The purpose of detaining kids is to isolate them from people who love them and the people who can help them,” the group tweeted.

Bridget Cambria, an attorney and executive director of ALDEA, said the longest-detained family at Berks currently has been there for 54 days. She said federal immigration officials routinely flout the 20-day standard.

“It’s not a campus. It’s a jail,” she said. “If you describe it as a campus that denotes you can leave. You can’t leave Berks.”

She said families have no privacy in rooms that hold six people with a bathroom shielded by a sheet. Families have to wake up when their told to, eat what their told to, and don’t get to make personal decisions about medical care.

“Those decisions are made for them,” Cambria said.

When children run in the facility, “they’re yelled at,” she said. “It’s a facade. It’s a way to make detaining children look good.”

Advocates led by the Shut Down Berks Coalition have called on the Wolf administration to use an emergency removal order to close the facility, citing a legal opinion solicited from Temple University.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Human Services, which has attempted to revoke the facility’s license, maintain that they do not have the ability to do so in this case and that the power rests with the federal government.

“Governor Wolf has been clear and consistent in his opposition the detention of asylum seekers, especially children. He has repeatedly called for the federal government to transition asylum seekers to community-based settings, which showed positive results in a pilot program before the Trump Administration ended it,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in a statement. “Today’s attack on undocumented children is another overly aggressive, unnecessary and cruel immigration tactic by this administration. Governor Wolf continues to support the federal government shutting down the Berks County center, which is operated by the county government. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services continues to regularly inspect the facility to ensure it complies with state regulations.”

In July, psychiatrists and psychologists from Carnegie Mellon University wrote a letter to Wolf about the “negative consequences” of prolonged detention on children.

“The broad consensus of the scientific community is that the current US government policies on incarceration and separation of minors has a real potential for causing long-term, and very possibly permanent, harm,” the group wrote, as WITF-FM reported.

Cambria said that children who were detained for up to two years in 2014 and 2015 are now showing signs of anxiety and anger. Some need psychologists to walk them into school buildings that resemble the Berks facility, she said; others act out against their parents, who they don’t see as decision makers.

July also brought a visit to the facility by Democratic U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, of Montgomery County, and Mary Gay Scanlon, of Delaware County.

At the time, roughly 25 people were detained in the center, from 13 different families. Most were from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, while Scanlon said there were 13 adults and 12 minors.

Dean, Scanlon make unannounced tour of Berks Detention Center, call for more humane treatment of migrants

A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday that the Berks facility “has an outstanding track record with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and is regularly awarded exceptional ratings concerning the health, safety, and treatment of residents residing at the Center.”

ICE “is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe and humane environments and under appropriate conditions,” the spokesperson continued.

While no official language has been released, Cambria said it appears the Trump administration’s new rule would allow for the detention of families while their cases are adjudicated — a serious departure from current standards.

At the moment, families who are seeking asylum or who are facing an order of removal are released to a community sponsor during court proceedings. That’s a requirement under Flores that would go away under the new plan.

So would a requirement that facilities be licensed with the state. Rather, the rule would create a new licensing scheme under ICE.

“They’re trying to minimize responsibilities in order to deter future migration,” Cambria said. “Deterrence is not a reason to treat children poorly.”

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