It took nearly a decade of exposing the patterns of abuse and neglect at the facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
By Adrianna Torres-Garcia and Jasmine Rivera
Today, advocates across the U.S. are celebrating the end of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract with Berks County in Pennsylvania, marking the long-fought closure of the embattled Berks immigration prison (officially known as Berks County Residential Center). Berks is the fifth immigration prison contract to end under the Biden administration, signaling the growing consensus that ICE’s immigration detention system does not need to exist, and a movement of communities across the country is organizing to end it.
Our group, the Shut Down Berks Coalition, worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to expose the egregious patterns of abuse and neglect inside Berks; to free our immigrant family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors incarcerated inside; and to get the facility closed for good. We brought together a diverse coalition of immigrant leaders, community organizers, grassroots groups, interfaith leaders, lawyers, and so many more, and we united people in Pennsylvania and beyond through the fundamental belief that no matter where someone came from or how they arrived in the United States, their life is of value and they should be treated with dignity and respect.
Berks began incarcerating immigrants in 2001 as a “family detention center” with close to 100 beds. Family detention centers have a well-documented history of negligence and abuse, including inadequate medical and mental health care, children losing weight, and inappropriate disciplinary tactics, including threats to separate families if children misbehave.
In 2015, the Shut Down Berks Coalition began documenting Berks’s history of abuse, which includes sexual assault, verbal abuse and extreme medical neglect, such as guards and medical staff ignoring instances of fever, vomiting, skin rashes and respiratory illnesses. Cristina, a mother formerly detained with her son at Berks who asked to be identified only by her first name, describes her time at the facility as “very traumatic.” “I left with a lot of depression; to this day I am in therapy,” she said.
Liliana Pérez, a member of the immigrant rights group CASA, said she “spent more than one month in detention and my sick daughter was never cared for or given the medicine she needed while I was in prison.”
For years, parents and children incarcerated at Berks bravely spoke out against abuses and called for the facility’s closure. In 2015, 10 mothers participated in a work stoppage to demand freedom for their children, and in 2016, mothers launched hunger strikes that garnered international attention and inspired parents trapped in other family immigration prisons. The courageous voices of people inside were the drumbeat to our fight to close Berks. They are the heart of the coalition, sustaining us in an increasingly anti-immigrant political climate.
Through every obstacle that we faced, we were resolute in our demand that Berks must shut down. We went door to door to connect with our neighbors and called on county officials to stop detaining immigrants. We drew national attention to our cause while always keeping the parents and children who were incarcerated at Berks at the center of our fight. Regardless of the administration, from Obama to Trump to Biden, we knew that if we joined together as a community, we could put an end to this harmful facility and bring freedom to those who have endured its abuse. We are not alone — communities all across the country are uniting to do the same, demanding communities, not cages. For example, another active struggle is taking place in Taylor, Texas, where organizers are pushing for the closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, which followed a similar trajectory to Berks, having once been a “family detention center” and later becoming an immigrant women’s prison.
“For years I’ve fought to end the incarceration of immigrants in my backyard,” says Flor González, a member leader of Make the Road Pennsylvania, a nonprofit committed to organizing for justice in Latinx communities, communities of color and working-class communities in the region. “This victory belongs to the immigrant families and women detained at Berks who shared their stories and demanded dignity, and to the organizers who never lost hope and never stopped fighting for immigrant families to be free and together.”
The Biden administration is co-signing a right-wing agenda that promotes fear and demonizes immigrants by implementing new restrictive immigration policies that further undermine the asylum process, expanding inhumane Title 42 expulsions and increasing the use of expedited removal. But local communities are resisting and taking action.
Detention Watch Network’s Communities Not Cages campaign is drawing new people together in many regions nationwide to mobilize locally for the rights of immigrants. The Communities Not Cages campaign amplifies long-standing local community organizing while building a nationally coordinated strategy to stop the expansion of ICE detention, shut down facilities and ultimately abolish the detention system in its entirety. The campaign currently supports more than 20 other campaigns across the country that are uniting to end immigration detention. ICE’s immigration prisons are everywhere, which makes federal policy a local issue in communities nationwide.
There are 12 more ICE-managed detention centers with contracts expiring this year, and it is imperative that the administration follow the lead of Berks and shut these facilities down now. Simply put, people navigating their immigration case should be able to do so with their families freely in the community — not behind bars in immigration detention. The Berks immigration prison is now empty — let’s use this momentum to shut down all immigration prisons.
Adrianna Torres-García is the deputy director for Free Migration Project and a longtime member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition. Based out of Philadelphia, they advocate for freedom of movement as a human right.
Jasmine Rivera has been community organizing and campaign coordinating in the Philadelphia area for nearly 15 years. She is a co-founder and co-coordinator of the Shut Down Berks Coalition.
This article was published on January 31, 2023, at Truthout.