Content warning for mention of rape, sexual assault, and suicidality.
Residential center, correctional facility, processing center.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement applies any number of these euphemisms to describe the places they use to incarcerate and deport immigrants. A locked facility that prevents immigrants from leaving the premises is, by definition, a prison.
In the United States, immigration policy authorizes the detention of “noncitizens to secure their presence for immigration proceedings or removal from the United States.” ICE claims the practice is “non–punitive,” but detainees are subject to trauma, isolation, and precarity for months and even years at these facilities—both during and beyond their time of incarceration.
Until recently, the Berks County Residential Center was one such immigration prison operating in Pennsylvania. For nearly a decade, immigrant leaders fought to expose the inhumanity and injustice of the BCRC, including its notorious history of abuse. On Dec. 1, 2022, immigrants and families formerly detained at the facility celebrated a historic victory. After years of local campaigning to close the detention center, ICE informed Berks officials that their contract with the county would be ending the following month. The community’s rallying call to “Shut Down Berks” had finally come to fruition.
The BCRC was originally one of three—but the only publicly owned—immigrant family detention centers in the United States, later transitioning to a women–only facility. The prison operated under a contract between ICE and Berks County, which owns the building and grounds of the facility and leased it to the federal agency. However, the conditions that led to the establishment of the BCRC and other immigrant prisons in Pennsylvania have been in the making for decades.
The issues with United States border enforcement stem from a legacy of federal policies designed to control and criminalize migration. Nuneh Grigoryan, assistant professor of communication and interim director for the Center on Immigration at Cabrini University, explains that an ongoing example is Title 42, a policy enacted under the Trump administration that limits the rights of people applying for refugee status and seeking asylum—particularly migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, and Mexico. “[Title 42] is a violation of a human … [and] internationally recognized right,” Grigoryan says, “that has caused panic and violations at the border where people are being either deported to [another] country or are detained.”
Policies like Title 42 have contributed to the growing number of detention centers and immigrant prisons across the country. In the fiscal year 2021, the federal government detained nearly 250,000 people across 200 facilities operated by ICE. According to Grigoryan, enforcement practices that seek to deport, detain, and forcefully separate migrants and families are “criminalizing something that is not criminal” and “justify the violence and suffering of the people.”
The Shut Down Berks Coalition—a group of organizations and individuals advocating for the closure of the BCRC—began campaigning in early 2015 after a 19–year–old mother imprisoned at the facility was raped by an employee. He was convicted of “institutional sexual assault” after other women in the facility came forward as witnesses and was sentenced to four months in prison, less time than the victim had been detained at Berks. “This really rattled the community,” says Adrianna Torres–García, deputy director of Free Migration Project and member of the Coalition. “People came together from different organizations … wanting to shut this center down because they saw all the violence that was being committed in that place.”
Immigrants in facilities like the BCRC are particularly isolated from community support and legal representation, increasing the chances of unlawful deportation and experiencing violence. Since 2001—when the detention center opened—there have been multiple documented cases of abuse, including malnutrition, inadequate access to health care, and treatment leading to suicidality and diagnosed PTSD among young children. In addition, guards performed flashlight checks every ten to 15 minutes at night, which is considered a form of torture due to sleep deprivation and the hindrance of proper REM cycles. Advocacy groups and community leaders exposed these harms as part of a larger effort to close the BCRC and abolish immigrant prisons.
Over the years, the Coalition has grown in size and strength, which “happened pretty organically,” says Tonya Wenger, who is a leader of Shut Down Berks Interfaith Witness, a subset of the larger coalition. Embracing civil disobedience as a tool for change, Shut Down Berks “basically tried everything,” she explains, refusing to yield to a series of setbacks and disappointments. Through organizing efforts, the Coalition sought to make their demands known to the local, state, and even federal government. It was a “commitment to being as annoying as possible to whichever decision–maker we thought might tip the scales in our favor,” says Andy Kang, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, another affiliated organization.
At the state level, Shut Down Berks put pressure on the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, leading to a decision in February of 2016 not to renew the detention center license. However, Berks County appealed the cancellation in a legal case that dragged on until 2021, during which the prison remained operational. Over the course of this period, the Coalition repeatedly called upon then–Gov. Tom Wolf to address the illegal incarceration of families according to Pennsylvania state law.
In February of 2021, all families held at the BCRC were suddenly released, and the building remained empty until January of the next year. Under President Joe Biden's administration, the prison reopened as an adult immigrant, women–only facility with double the number of beds, effectively expanding the presence of ICE detention in Pennsylvania.
That’s when the Coalition brought their fight to the White House. “In the last year [the Shut Down Berks Coalition] was trying to raise as much pressure on the federal level as possible, specifically around President Biden and Homeland Security,” says Kang. They urged Biden to immediately release everyone imprisoned at the BCRC and end the ICE contract in Berks County.
Shut Down Berks also coordinated various rallies—such as an event in Washington D.C. that drew a crowd even in sweltering weather—and formed partnerships with local colleges, schools, and churches. In addition, Kang explains that “whenever the President was in Pennsylvania, we would try to steal some of the media attention and at least insert the fact that immigrant detention is happening in Pennsylvania into the narrative.”
Throughout the campaign, the Coalition deliberately highlighted the voices of immigrants detained at the BCRC. “We took their lead [because] they knew what they needed,” Wenger says. This approach was vital considering “immigrants who are being detained or deported don't have a platform to speak about the violations and tell their stories,” Grigoryan explains. Shut Down Berks listened to the detainees, and mobilized to amplify their message.
Ultimately, the Coalition’s diverse strategy proved successful, when it was announced in November of last year that the contract between ICE and Berks County will be officially terminated on Jan. 31. According to ICE officials, the closure was initiated because the BCRC became “operationally unnecessary” and “inefficient.” Adriana Zambrano, the programs coordinator at Aldea—The People’s Justice Center, says she thinks “it’s because they wanted to build a deportation mill at Berks and we frustrated that purpose.” By Jan. 10, the last woman left the facility. Everyone previously incarcerated was released rather than transferred, thanks in part to the continued activism of Shut Down Berks.
Aldea—a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal and social services to immigrant populations in Pennsylvania—was established in response to a lack of legal resources at the BCRC. The organization’s founders, Bridget Cambria and Jackie Kline, began receiving calls in 2014 requesting help for people in the facility without legal representation and decided to take action.
To meet this need, Aldea adopted a practice of providing universal legal services to anyone incarcerated at the prison, but not without obstacles. “It is extremely difficult to provide representation to someone in detention, [especially] when it comes to technical things like evidence gathering, declaration drafting, and accommodating a visiting schedule,” Zambrano explains.
It’s also challenging for many detainees to get a hold of the necessary materials for their case. “If you want to acquire other materials for yourself, you have to pay an exorbitant amount above what a person in the community would pay,” says Alyssa Kane, the managing attorney at Aldea. “It's really difficult for [incarcerated individuals] to even establish the basics of their own claims … especially for families who are also trying to take care of their own children at the same time.” There are financial barriers to legal representation as well. Detainees often can’t afford to pay for the lengthy phone calls necessary to discuss a complex immigration case with an attorney.
Jasmine Rivera, a coordinator in the Coalition, emphasizes that the goal was always to close the BCRC permanently—as the group’s name makes clear—and in the process, eliminate the resource gap that Aldea addresses. “It would have been easy for us to just focus on the conditions at the center … many organizations, that’s only what they do, but that just keeps the cycle going,” she says. It's a difficult balancing act to both meet the immediate needs of imprisoned immigrants and address systemic issues of detainment and deportation, all with limited resources.
A hallmark of the Shut Down Berks campaign has been sensitively navigating opposing interests and integrating alternative modes of advocacy. On a local scale, the Coalition underscored that their pro–immigrant stance was intended to be in the community’s best interest, not an anti–worker plot to take jobs away from staff employed at the prison. Additionally, Zambrano and Kane admit there are challenges posed by a partnership between abolitionist and universal representation strategies. That said, Zambrano believes that “in the Shut Down Berks Coalition we were able to merge those two worlds.” Shut Down Berks recognized not only the need for accessible legal representation, but also the importance of working to abolish the system of immigrant detention that originally imprisons and criminalizes these communities.
After eight years of multilateral campaigning, members of the Coalition believe persistence and consistency truly determined the outcome of their cause. “This is a pretty phenomenal group. They are incredibly committed and very resilient,” Kang says. Individuals formerly detained at the BCRC also played an instrumental role in the campaign, advocating for themselves and the freedom of others at the detention center through their leadership and willingness to share their stories.
Aldea’s Kane and other members of Shut Down Berks describe feeling an “overwhelming joy” when they learned about the closure—a testament to their efforts and the value of advocacy work. However, the immigrants formerly incarcerated at the BCRC remain the central focus, as the Coalition emphasized through a series of quotes in their recent press release announcing the victory:
“'For me it is a pleasure, the best news I have heard, happy to know that there will never again be families in Berks detention. No more depressed children locked up. Freedom is the most valuable thing that can be had, thanks to the support from everyone. Families should not arrive to be confined, no matter where they are from. I am more than happy that it will be closed down.' — Lorena, mother incarcerated with her son for nearly 2 years"
“'There were 28 days of uncertainty and anguish with my son, where we had a false freedom, rules for everything we did and we didn’t have the security of being able to talk to someone [while] inside Berks. We are happy that now they will have one less place to hold people and so [people] can move forward.' — Mr. A, father incarcerated with son for 1 month"
In the aftermath of the shut down, members of the Coalition will take much–needed time to “process and debrief” the events of the past several years, Rivera says. At the same time, Torres–García recognizes that “when you're organizing you have to think three steps ahead.” Residents of Berks County are already collaborating with the local government to transform the facility into something beneficial for the community, with proposed uses including a drug treatment or health and services center.
Two remaining ICE prisons in Pennsylvania, Clinton County Correctional Facility and Pike County Correctional Facility, and the Moshannon Valley Processing Center—privately owned and operated by the GEO Group—also necessitate future campaigns.
In particular, the Moshannon Valley facility poses a challenge to those speaking out against immigrant detention. The GEO Group “has a long track record of abuse,” says Kang, but private ownership of the prison means the company is profiting off of locking people up, and there is little accountability or obligation for transparency. Since no operating agreement exists between the Processing Center and the county, approaches employed by the Coalition in the Berks campaign lack the same efficacy. “I think the fight [at Moshannon Valley] is going to be a lot harder … they’re not susceptible to that kind of pressure,” explains Torres–García. Even from a strictly logistical standpoint, the physically distant location of the prison makes it more difficult for local activists to get involved on the ground.
Still, the shutdown is not just a triumph for Berks County, but nationally as well. “This is a huge victory for everyone across the [United States] who is fighting to shut a prison down, because this really shows that when we keep pressure on our targets, and when we organize, we can have big victories,” Torres–García says. The Coalition teaches other advocacy groups that are uplifting immigrant voices and working to put a stop to inhumane detention practices that it’s not impossible to accomplish big changes.
The long–term goal for Coalition members and other human rights activists is the abolition of immigrant prisons. Systemic change is required to overturn current policies built on “structural racism, imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism” that criminalize Black and brown immigrants—what Rivera calls the “deportation machine.” Grigoryan impels us to ask: “What are our values as a society and do we have empathy and compassion? Do we have a humane approach?”
As global concerns like climate change intensify, increasingly and disproportionately displacing communities as a result of environmental disasters, recognizing the fundamental human right to movement and migration becomes even more imperative. In this era “we have to make space for each other. We have to be willing to live together and take on those challenges together,” says Kang.
Arresting and incarcerating people exercising this right, building fences, and deporting immigrants back to dangerous situations is inhumane and unethical. The Coalition urges us to put pressure on those in power, demand change, and continue organizing in our communities, because, as Rivera puts it, “every single one of us deserves to be free, deserves our full dignity.”