LEESPORT, Pa. — On the eve of a nationwide immigration crackdown ordered by the Trump administration, hundreds gathered outside the Berks Family Detention Center for a candlelight vigil Friday, where they called on state and local politicians to do everything in their power to shut it down.
The rally, part of the nationwide “Lights for Liberty” protests, attracted at least 200 people to the rural facility, one of just three family detention centers in the country. The event was organized by a number of state and local groups, including the Shut Down Berks Coalition, CASA —a York-based Latino advocacy group — Make the Road Pennsylvania, a Latino organizing group, and Indivisible.
“The innocent people inside are not operating illegally, this prison is,” Rianna Salm, with Shut Down Berks, said to cheers from the crowd.
For 90 minutes, attendees chanted “Shame” and “Shut down Berks” in both English and Spanish, sang songs, and heard stories of people who had been held in the detention center — either separated or with their children.
The facility’s conditions have been questioned by former detainees, some of whom have spent more than a year in custody. A report on a detainee from Al Dia, a Latinx-focused Philadelphia newspaper, called the conditions “unbearable.”
One former guard at the facility — which is owned by Berks County but rented out to the federal government for $1 million a year — was sentenced to six to 26 months in prison in 2016 for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old migrant detainee. A federal court judge recently allowed a civil rights lawsuit filed against the detention center, Berks County, and its employees to move forward.
Gov. Tom Wolf was a frequent target of the vigil-goers, some of whom held “Shame on Wolf” signs, or signed a petition for him to issue an emergency removal order to pull every detainee out of the facility.
In 2016, the state Department of Human Services declined to renew a license for the facility. Berks County has appealed, and the process is ongoing. But Wolf has balked at taking the more extreme step of the removal order. Billy Penn reported last year that the administration says inspections haven’t uncovered the violations necessary to issue the order.
The Wolf administration has also repeatedly said it is the federal government’s jurisdiction to shut down Berks.
Still, for attendees like Vanna Cleary, a 71-year-old Bloomsburg resident, the choice to close the center is clearcut.
A former child psychologist, she said she was concerned about the impact of detention, and especially child separation, on children for even a single day.
As for using her Friday night to protest, Cleary told the Capital-Star she “had to, I literally felt no choice.”
“To think of myself as a moral person, I could not turn away, I could not close my eyes,” she added.
A similar message came from Yatciri, an 18-year-old DACA recipient brought to America when she was just nine months old.
Now an activist with CASA, Yatciri, who preferred to not share her last name, told the Capital-Star that she hoped attendees considered how they’d feel if it was their kids separated or kept behind bars in a facility like Berks.
“I want them to be put into their shoes for a little bit,” she said.
The Capital-Star reported Thursday that the Berks County facility could end up housing immigrant families caught up in Trump’s planned crackdown, which is scheduled for Sunday in nine cities nationwide.
The event was held in conjunction with hundreds of other events across the country, including a dozen in Pennsylvania alone. One in Philadelphia shut down parts of center city in an afternoon march.
Attendees were also advised to know their rights if Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows up at their door.