On Friday, Oct. 1, a group of Pennsylvania Congress members sent a letter to President Biden and the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, urging them to immediately terminate the ICE contract held with the Berks County Residential Center.
The letter, led by Representative Madeleine Dean, came after she joined the Shut Down Berks Coalition at Independence Hall on a National Day of Action against immigrant prisons.
The center had been used for many years to house families awaiting asylum in the U.S., but it closed in February. While this was a victory for activists in organizations such as Make the Road PA and Shut Down Berks Coalition, it was short-lived.
Berks County Commissioners deliberated in secret, and in August, approved a change to the contract, allowing ICE to house only migrant women at the center.
“Placing women seeking asylum into detention centers is unconscionable, especially when there is a track record of harm, abuse, and sexual violence. That is why I led a letter with my PA colleagues to urge DHS to terminate the ICE contract at Berks County Residential Center,” Dean wrote on Twitter.
The letter was signed by Representatives Dwight Evans, Mary Gay Scanlon, and Brendan Boyle. It was endorsed by the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Free Migration Project, Human Rights First, Aldea – the People’s Justice Center and more.
Dean and her colleagues wrote the letter to lend their voices along with more than 50 other state officials and the nearly 10,000 members of the public whose concerns were ignored in the transformation of the facility.
Dean used examples of the horrifying patterns of sexual assault and medically invasive gynecological procedures, including forced sterilization that have occurred at all-women detention centers, such as Hutto Detention Center in Texas and Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.
“There are years of documented incidents of sexual assault in Hutto Detention Center, an all-women’s detention center, to include a survivor of sexual assault who was locked in solitary confinement for 60 hours in retaliation for speaking out,” Dean wrote.
Last year, Berks County paid out a $75,000 settlement to a Honduran woman to avoid trial on her allegations of repeated sexual assault at Berks Detention Center.
“Berks will have the shameful distinction of being the only women’s immigration detention center in the northeast. The Commonwealth should not be in the business of jailing women who seek asylum or other legal protections when community-based alternatives exist,” Dean wrote.
Dean also stated that local elected officials have already committed to finding funding to use the facility for non-carceral purposes that would provide much-needed human services to the community.
In an op-ed for Generocity, Jasmine Rivera, a Community Organizer for Shut Down Berks Coalition, wrote about the disconnect between what Latinx voters want and what politicians are actually doing.
“There is a disconnect between campaign promises and the follow-through on those promises. And that disconnect then becomes a slap in the face,” Rivera wrote.
Rivera also emphasized that not only is migration a normal human experience, it is a human right, and no level of intimidation from the U.S. government will hinder the natural human instinct to survive and protect children.
“We need a pathway to citizenship and the dismantling of the deportation machine all at the same time. We need to demand everything that our communities deserve and be unapologetic when doing so. President Biden, it’s time to shut down Berks. It’s time to shut it all down,” Rivera said.