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U.S. lawmakers seek answers on Berks County Residential Center

June 20, 2018
In The News

Troubling details about the Berks County Residential Center have caused two members of U.S. Congress to take action.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) signed a letter sent Tuesday to Gov. Tom Wolf requesting information about the immigration detention center, which is located about 60 miles from Philadelphia in Leesport, Pa. For years, activists and politicians have pushed for the closure of the facility, which is one of only three detention centers in the country that holds children with their parents.

Advocates for the shutdown of the center have highlighted reports of poor living conditions, sexual misconduct by employees, and the fact that the facility can hold families, many of whom have fled their homes in Central America seeking asylum from violence, for indefinite amounts of time.

Boyle hosted a roundtable discussion in May at his Northeast Philadelphia office with community leaders and Sánchez, Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Attendees of this meeting raised concerns regarding the Berks County Residential Center with the two U.S. representatives, who made a commitment to investigate the issue and reach out to the governor.

Seeking Answers

Gov. Wolf had pushed for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to suspend its $7 million contract with the facility and move the families into communities in 2016, which was when the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) did not renew its child residential license. However, an administrative judge within the DHS ruled in April 2017 that it could be renewed, claiming the initial decision was “arbitrary and based on political pressure.”

Boyle and Sánchez’s letter to Gov. Wolf cites the case of a 19-year-old Honduran woman who was sexually abused by a guard. This facility employee pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault and was sentenced to five months in Berks County Prison, which was less time than the woman he victimized spent in detention at the center. The note also mentions reports brought up by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) that women and children in the institution who fled sexual violence in their countries of origin were given unfair asylum interviews and deported back.

In addition, Boyle and Sánchez indicate in their correspondence reports of discrepancies between English and Spanish versions of a manual given to residents of the detention center, which outlined its “zero tolerance” policy for sexual misconduct and the steps to report it in English, while the Spanish version instead included four-and-a-half pages instructing women to avoid talking about sex as a means to prevent sexual abuse. This discrepancy, the letter states, is “essentially putting the blame for any such abuse on potential victims.”

The representatives who authored the letter thanked Wolf for his efforts thus far, but call for further action.

“We remain deeply concerned about the treatment of families at the Berks County Residential Center, and we are committed to working with you to carefully monitor the Center,” the letter states. “We look forward to working with you on this particular issue, and continuing to work together to build a future where we no longer detain immigrant children and families for years under such poor conditions.”

The letter concludes with several questions for Gov. Wolf regarding what action should be taken next, the commonwealth's jurisdiction over the center, the options the governor’s office may have for revoking the center’s child residential license, what conduct may lead to a license being revoked, and what the governor is doing to prevent more families from being sent there.

A spokesperson for Boyle said that the congressman and Sánchez have also brought the situation to the attention of the Congressional Hispanic Congress, of which Sánchez is a former chairwoman, and the group is "now very interested in getting more information on the facility and finding a solution."

A Formal Request

The letter signed by Boyle and Sánchez can be read in its entirety below:

Dear Governor Wolf:

As Members of Congress, we collectively write to you today to seek information regarding the Berks County Residential Center located in Leesport, Pennsylvania. As you know, the Center is one of three family detention centers in the United States, holding undocumented children and parents who are seeking asylum. Berks County operates this facility through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and has made roughly $7 million off the contract [1]. This facility holds individuals, including children, for an indefinite amount of time as their cases proceed in federal immigration courts.

The Berks County Residential Center has a troubling past. In 2016, a guard at the facility admitted to sexually abusing a 19-year-old Honduran woman detained at the Center. This was first uncovered by a 7-year-old girl who was also being detained at the facility and had herself previously experienced abuse prior to entering the Center [2]. Additionally, Senator Bob Casey brought to our attention the cases of Central American women and children sent to the Center after fleeing sexual abuse and violence in their home country of Honduras, only to be deported back after claiming unfair asylum interviews [3]. A local NBC news station also uncovered discrepancies in handbooks given to detainees at the Center. While the English version of the manual claimed that ICE had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and included steps on how to report it, the Spanish version had four and one half pages instructing females to refrain from talking about sex in order to avoid assault during their time in the facility, essentially putting the blame for any such abuse on potential victims [4].

We understand that in 2016 the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services decided against renewing the facility’s child residential license, but a judge reinstated the license and declared that the initial decision was arbitrary and based on political pressure [5]. We applaud your strong, ongoing support for the immigrant families who continue to be detained in Berks County. Furthermore, we thank you for continuing to urge the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS) to consider community-based options to serve these families [6]. However, we remain deeply concerned about the treatment of families at the Berks County Residential Center, and we are committed to working with you to carefully monitor the Center. Toward this end, we respectfully request that you provide us the following information in a timely manner:

  1. Do you believe the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has any jurisdiction over the Berks County Detention Center?

  2. What options does your Administration have to potentially revoke the Center’s state-issued child residential license, and what conduct would trigger such action?

  3. In addition to your request of HHS and DHS, what steps is your Administration taking to prevent more families, including children, from being sent to the Center?

  4. In addition to your support for utilizing community-based detention options, what federal action would you advise to prevent more children and families from being sent to the Center and address the failings of the Center or expedite its closure?

Again, we thank you for your strong record of support for immigrant communities, both in Pennsylvania and around the country. We look forward to working with you on this particular issue, and continuing to work together to build a future where we no longer detain immigrant children and families for years under such poor conditions.