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Immigration Activists Launch Lawsuit to Learn Future of Berks County Detention Center

— April 2, 2021

Activists allege that Berks County’s commissioners have refused to inform of the public of their plans to use the facility as part of a mysterious federal contract.

Immigration activists have filed a lawsuit to learn the future of the Berks County Detention Center, long used to keep undocumented aliens behind bars.

According to The Philadelphia Enquirer, Berks was notorious for housing immigrant families. But after President Joe Biden issued a series of orders on immigration, Berks’ purpose hangs in limbo.

While the facility is no longer hosting migrant families, activists say that Berks County and its commissioners have avoided questions on their future plans for the long-time jail.

Although some locals have proposed turning the prison into a coronavirus vaccination site or an opioid treatment center, the federal government may have other plans.

Despite Biden’s immigration reforms, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official told The Washington Post there are plans to transform Berks into a holding center for migrant women.

However, Berks County has refused to entertain public comment. In February, the county commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a letter of support for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement proposal about the detention center’s future.

Female inmates inside a maximum security cell. Image via Wikimedia Commons/user:Officer Bimblebury. (CCA-BY-4.0).

But the commissioners didn’t invite the public to the meeting, and they didn’t release any details about what, exactly, ICE’s plan entails.

The lawsuit, notes The Philadelphia Enquirer, was filed by Make the Road Pennsylvania.

Armando Jimenez Carbarin, an organizer with Make the Road, told the media neither he nor his colleagues want to see the old detention center used to hold migrants again.

“We don’t want immigrants to be detained there,” he said during a Tuesday press conference. “We want something that is not anti-immigrant, something that helps the community.

“We don’t want ICE to be there, in the backyard of Reading and Berks County,” Jimenez Carbarin added.

Similarly, Make the Road issued another statement explaining the group’s belief that Berks County is acting undemocratically.

“Berks residents believe it is completely undemocratic that the commissioners refuse transparency and accountability with their constituents as to the content of the letter of support [to ICE],” Make the Road said.

The Inquirer observes that activists have long complained of the Berks holding center, which had a reputation for holding immigrants in “atrocious” conditions.

Part of the reason Berks opened in the first place, says the Inquirer, was former President Donald Trump’s belief that undocumented immigrants would appear at court dates if they were not kept behind bars. In fact, Trump went so far as to say that only 2% of migrants released to friends, family, or sponsors ever returned to immigration court.

In reality, the number is far higher—the Inquirer cites studies which show that upwards of 80% of undocumented immigrants granted temporary release do return for their court dates.

The lawsuit, adds the Inquirer, does not seek to prevent Berks County from contracting with ICE. Instead, it simply asks that the commissioners release their plans.

In the meantime, Jimenez Carbarin has said that “the fight is not over,” even if the Berks detention center is now empty.

“More families can continue to be brought back in,” he said. “All of us need to hold the Biden administration accountable and demand [the Department of Homeland Security] end family detention nationwide.”


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