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Immigration Activists Sue Pennsylvania to Shutter Berks County Detention Center

— February 26, 2020

Activists are trying a novel new tactic: suing pro-immigration Gov. Tom Wolf, whose administration has so far been reluctant to close Berks.

Immigration activists in Pennsylvania are suing to shutter the Berks County Detention Center.

But, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, they’re trying a novel, new tactic. Instead of filing a case against the federal government, activists are challenging the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf, says the Inquirer, is often regarded as something of an ally by immigration activists. Along with criticizing federal immigration policy, the governor has also spoken out against Berks.

The lawsuit, though, doesn’t criticize Wolf. Instead, it notes what should’ve been an obvious contradiction and point of contention: that Berks’ operational license was rescinded by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in 2016.

So, for the past four years, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been locking up men, women and children—all in a facility that’s technically unlicensed.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, pictured left, has spoken out against the Berks County Detention Center. But his critics say his words have been empty. Image via Flickr/user:governortomwolf. (CCA-BY-2.0).

“That should have been the end of it,” Temple University law student Emma Pajer told a gathering of immigration activists in Center City Philadelphia Thursday. “We’re not okay with immigrant families being detained in our state.”

Pajer, says The Morning Call, is among several individuals and organizations have collaborated on the suit.

However, simply lacking a license doesn’t mean that Berks cannot legally be used as a detention center. One of the lawsuit’s main objectives is getting the Department of Human Services to rescind guidance and legal loopholes which allow Berks to continue operations unhindered.

David Bennion, a Philadelphia-area attorney and executive director of the Free Migration Project, told the Inquirer that the lawsuit intends to provoke a confrontation between Wolf and his own policy positions.

“This lawsuit will help expose the hypocrisy of the governor’s position,” Bennion said. “His public position is that he wants Berks to be closed, but he has refused to take steps within his power to actually shut it down.”

Wolf has previously said that he wants Berks closed—but claims it’s impossible to do, at least for the time being. According to Gov. Wolf, the detention center is a consequence of contracting between Berks County and the federal government.

His administration has rejected requests to evacuate Berks with an emergency removal order, though, saying the circumstances wouldn’t support such an action.

“I am happy to keep looking for things I can do to shut it down,” Wolf said last year, “but I haven’t been able to come up with anything at this point.”

Jennifer Lee, director of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic at the Sheller Center, implied there’s little doubt that Wolf’s administration is sympathetic—they just isn’t doing enough.

“We feel we do have a sympathetic partner at the state level, but they’re not pushing in ways that they could be,” Lee said. “They should be taking a stand.”


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