‘No child should ever be locked up’: SEIU Healthcare members want ICE detention center in Berks County shut down

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The members of one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful labor unions joined with immigration activists at the state Capitol Wednesday to call on Gov. Tom Wolf to shut down a detention center in Berks County that holds adults and children apprehended at the southern border.

The two dozen workers from Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, along with the grassroots Shutdown Berks Coalition, cited ongoing civil liberties and health concerns to argue that the Berks County Residential Center needs to be closed.

“It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when,” Jasmine Rivera, a co-founder of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, said.

The center, one of three family detention centers nationwide that holds migrant families as their cases are adjudicated, is owned by Berks County and leased by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Rivera expressed excitement after the rally to have members of the politically influential union — which represents 45,000 health care workers statewide — on the side of closing the controversial facility.

“That’s always the goal: to have new allies,” she said.

SEIU Healthcare PA is just one branch of the service workers’ union. In a statement, SEIU Healthcare PA President Matthew Yarnell said  Wednesday’s rally was “another example of our continued efforts to lift up the injustices at Berks County Family Detention Center and speak out about the harm being done to those held there.”

“As healthcare workers, we will always advocate for the health of our communities and all people — immigrant or native born — who live here,” Yarnell continued.

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The union often negotiates with Gov. Tom Wolf and Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller on behalf of publicly funded health care employees, including in-home workers. SEIU Healthcare PA’s political action committee was also a donor to Wolf’s reelection campaign in 2018.

Immigrant families have cited extended stays in the center — sometimes over a year in length — as the cause of emotional trauma in children who’ve been detained.

In August, the Trump administration proposed a rule to allow the indefinite detention of migrant families at facilities such as Berks. A federal judge last week blocked the policy.

When the policy was announced, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan specifically pointed to the Pennsylvania facility — located in Leesport, Pa., just outside Reading — as a “campus-like setting.” Immigration advocates lambasted his description as misleading.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has called on Wolf to issue an emergency removal order to close the facility. Wolf has repeatedly said that the action is not within his administration’s power at the moment. 

On Wednesday, Tasha Arison — a 24-year-old home health care worker and SEIU Healthcare member — said she’s taken up the Berks fight as a chance to stand up for children everywhere.

While the Uniontown resident knows she’s surrounded by Trump supporters who back the policy at home in Fayette County, she said she believes “no child should ever be locked up.”

“Why does it matter what country the baby is from?” Arison said.

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