Homeland Security will close a migrant detention center it runs in Pennsylvania, bowing to pressure from immigrant rights activists who say the facility is tainted by its history of incarcerating women and children.
Deportation officials said the Berks County Residential Center had become “operationally unnecessary.”
“The decision to allow the contract with the Berks facility to expire reflects the agency’s current operational needs, and we value our long-standing relationship with the facility and its staff,” said David O’Neill, acting field director for ICE Enforcement and Services Removal Operations Office in Philadelphia.
Berks opened in 2001 as a place for immigration officers to hold families of illegal immigrants awaiting deportation decisions. It has become a key element of the efforts of the Obama and Trump administrations to try to stem the rise of illegal immigrants over the past decade.
But the Biden administration has ended the long-term incarceration of families and instead released illegal immigrants, making the facility redundant. It was last used to house migrant women, but US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that mission, too, will end.
The announcement of the imminent closure had enormous symbolic value for immigrant rights activists.
“We are overjoyed that this cycle of violence is coming to an end and we look forward to all being released to their families and communities,” the Shut Down Berks Coalition said in a statement. “We will remain vigilant that this site will never again be used to incite more anti-immigrant violence or imprison more people if repurposed.”
It also quoted a former detainee, a father who was held at Berks for seven months with his 6-year-old daughter: “This is such good news, no more trauma for children and adults in this place.”
Until the contract fully expires, the facility will continue to house women. Activists called for her immediate release, but ICE shot down the idea.
It was said that about 40 prisoners were still being held. All of their cases are expected to be closed by the end of the contract next month, but ICE said any detainees who haven’t received final decisions will be moved elsewhere.
ICE said it will make transfer decisions with family ties and proximity to legal counsel in mind.
Berks had become a symbol of immigration policy enforcement during the Obama years, when immigrant families began pouring en masse across the border.
Under then Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the government decided that catching and releasing families would lead to more illegal immigration. Instead, they leaned on Berks and opened two more family facilities in Texas to hold the families until their deportation cases were closed.
In most cases, this meant eventual deportation. When potential migrants in Central America saw the deportations, they didn’t come in such large numbers, analysts said.
But a series of court rulings in 2015 and 2016 turned things on their head, setting new limits on how long minor children who came as part of families can be held. The limit was far less than the time it would take to complete a deportation case, reviving catch-and-release.
The Trump administration fought back by trying to deter migrants at the border and making deals with Mexico and Central American countries to try to block new arrivals.
The Biden team called those policies too cruel and deleted them — and a new wave quickly began.
Current Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as Mr. Johnson’s deputy during the Obama years, has relied on alternatives to incarceration, such as ankle monitors and check-in requirements, to try to deter illegal immigrants from hiding in the shadows to disappear.
Berks, located near Reading, Pennsylvania, is operated by the county at federal taxpayer expense. It had a capacity of 96 beds and cost about $1.3 million a year to run.
Its closure follows evolving views on illegal immigrants.
When opened, it should be a humane option, allowing illegal immigrant families to stay together while awaiting deportation decisions.
But by the end of the Obama administration, and even more so in the Trump years, activists complained about every incarceration.
In 2019, the Pennsylvania state auditor said the facility should close. He said it routinely detained children beyond the target date set by the court procedures.
“The closure of the detention center here in Berks County finally ends years of trauma inflicted on migrants in our communities,” said Celine Schrier, a Berks Stands Up organizer.