What is Berks?
The Berks County Residential Center, also known as the Berks County Detention Center, is one of three family detention centers in the United States where the federal government detains undocumented families seeking asylum. It can hold up to 96 people-- mothers, fathers, and children--and can hold them indefinitely.
Berks County owns and runs the center and is reimbursed by the federal government for operational expenses, a cost of $343 per person per day. ICE dictates the center’s policies. Additionally, the county makes at least $1.1 million annually by leasing the building space.
What is Life Like for Immigrants Inside Berks?
Mothers, fathers, and children imprisoned inside Berks experience conditions of abuse and neglect. Families have reported verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from staff. Children as young as two weeks old have been incarcerated and parents have cited poor conditions for their children, including failure to provide adequate and timely medical care. In one case, it took three days for a four year old girl vomiting blood to be taken to a hospital to receive medical attention.
In 2016, a detention center worker was convicted of institutional sexual assault after admitting to raping a 19-year-old Honduran woman. He served less time in prison than this woman and her 3-year-old son did at Berks. ICE responded to this abuse by blaming victims of sexual violence. The Spanish version of the handbook given to families upon arrival includes a section titled “Measures to Avoid Sexual Assault” that dictates how women should dress, act, and talk.
Later that year, mothers detained with their children in Berks initiated a hunger strike to protest and challenge the government’s claim that families would be released from Berks after 20 days. The hunger strike did bring national attention to the situation at Berks, however the women eventually suspended their hunger strike citing intimidation from ICE.
Why Won’t Wolf Shut it Down?
In August 2015, a Federal Court judge ordered the release of immigrant children held in detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, after determining that the detention of children and their mothers who crossed the border illegally was in violation of a court settlement. In 2016, the PA Department of Human Services (PA DHS) revoked the license to operate the Berks County Family Residential Center and the center has been running without a state childcare license ever since.
Governor Wolf claims that he wants to close Berks Detention Center but that his hands are tied. The Shut Down Berks Coalition along with legal experts have conducted extensive research proving that Governor Wolf and the PA DHS can use Emergency Removal Orders to shut down Berks due to the clear neglect and dangers to the mental and physical health of the people detained there. Yet Wolf refuses to meet with the coalition and continues to claim there is nothing he can legally do.
Furthermore, the Berks County government has an economic interest in the detention of immigrants since it gives them millions of dollars in income. Although the county claims they are not profiting off the detention of undocumented immigrants, the $7 million they have made through their contract with ICE since 2011 speaks otherwise.
The Democratic Party is, at best, an unreliable ally. Nationally, the party abandoned its promises on DACA and negotiated a budget deal with no protections for immigrant youth. Democrats hope their rhetorical battle against the Trump administration’s extreme immigration policy will obscure the fact that it was the Obama administration which dramatically expanded family detention and deportations. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have played a role in the brutal imperialist policies at the root of the refugee crisis around the world.
The Democratic Party establishment is both terrified of, and complicit with, the right-wing demagoguery around immigration. US corporations and their politicians encourage “illegal” immigration to create a hyper-exploitable workforce which, under constant threat of deportation, must accept virtually any working condition. Then those very same forces, whip up the racist, xenophobic arguments about immigrants stealing jobs and committing crimes. This 2-for-1 special further divides the working class and undermines its capacity to fight back.
Legal status for immigrants would greatly strengthen their ability to struggle collectively with native-born workers for improved wages, benefits and working conditions. This puts progressive Democrats in a bind: they want the votes that will come with supporting the hugely popular demand “no kids in cages” without jeopardizing the corporate donations that come with maintaining, or even weakening, the status quo.
Liberals know how to wag their finger at native born workers and tell them to share, but their dependence on corporate cash prevents them from taking up a platform of taxing the rich to pay for a massive green jobs program, housing, education and healthcare; and of ending mass incarceration, militarized policing and deportations which could lay the basis for a united working class fight back against the billionaire class.
The Way Forward
Groups like the Shut Down Berks Coalition have campaigned and organized for years to shut down Berks and free immigrant families in Pennsylvania. The protracted length of this fight has made it clear that no amount of reasoning or logical argument will be sufficient to convince Governor Wolf to order Berks closed. Governor Wolf is more afraid of the blistering attack he will face from his Trump-like opponent, Scott Wagner, than he is of our movement. We have to escalate our tactics to change that. Closing the Berks facility would be a massive win for the movement, one which could inspire heightened struggle at other detention facilities around the country.
Socialist Alternative demands:
Governor Wolf order the closure of Berks through an Emergency Removal Order. The released families should NOT be transferred to another facility upon closure.
Mayor Kenney end the PARS data sharing contract with ICE.
The fight doesn’t stop there. We further demand:
- End the detention of refugees and families
- End the deportations
- End the criminalization of immigrants
- Abolish ICE and stop workplace raids
- Legalization for all undocumented immigrants
The next level of struggle requires the mobilization of broad layers of working class people, both documented and undocumented, ready to fight together in solidarity and disrupt business as usual to end deportation and win dignity for all working people.
If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, reach out to Socialist Alternative!