License not Renewed for Pennsylvania Family Detention Facility
New York City—Human Rights First praised yesterday’s announcement by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services that it would not renew the license of the Berks County Residential Center, a detention facility used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold families seeking asylum. After the facility’s license expires in February 2016, it will no longer be allowed to operate as a family detention facility.
“The Pennsylvania authorities’ indication that they will not renew the Berks family detention facility’s license is a recognition of the fact that children and their parents should never have been held there to begin with,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “This is a tremendous victory for children, mothers, and fathers, and should send a message to other states: children do not belong in detention facilities, period.”
The Berks family detention center is currently licensed by Pennsylvania as a “child residential facility” to hold up to 96 individuals. An August Human Rights First report on the Berks family detention facility found that children and their parents detained at the facility experience tremendous legal and health challenges, including detrimental effects on their mental health that may begin within days of incarceration. The families also encounter delays in their immigration proceedings, lack of access to legal counsel, and face obstacles and delays to release. Human Rights First’s findings and advocacy have been informed by two leading pediatricians, including the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics who visited the Berks facility along with Human Rights First staff and expressed concern about the damaging impact of detention on children and their parents, including the possibility of long-term negative developmental consequences to children.
Human Rights First has advocated for the state of Pennsylvania to revoke the Berks facility’s license, citing interviews with parents and children who have expressed anxiety and stress over their “incarceration” and “imprisonment.” Local Pennsylvania groups, pro bono lawyers, law schools, immigrant and refugee rights groups, as well as individual lawyers also raised awareness and concern about the detention facility and urged the state to revoke its license. The Berks County Residential Center is operated by Berks County and is one of the three family detention centers in the United States, along with the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
Today’s news comes following two important developments in the administration’s family detention policy. In June 2015, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a series of reforms, which included measures to reduce the length of time families were held in immigration detention. One month later a federal court ruled that children held in U.S. immigration detention facilities must be released without unnecessary delay to a family member in order of preference beginning with parents, including the accompanying parent who was detained with the child. The deadline for the government to be in compliance with that ruling is today.
Earlier this week, Human Rights First released a new report, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging,” finding that the Obama Administration’s continuing operation of family detention facilities negatively impacts the mental and physical health of children and their parents. The report, based on recent visits to family detention facilities, finds that detention—even lasting for less than two weeks rather than months—is harmful to children and families.
A broad array of voices have called on the administration to end the practice of detaining families, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, Catholic and Lutheran Bishops, and 178 Members of Congress and 35 Senators. Human Rights First continues to recommend that:
- The Obama Administration should end family detention once and for all.
- DHS should refer all families directly into removal proceedings before an immigration judge rather than invoking expedited removal.
- DHS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should implement community-based alternative to detention programs and legal orientation presentations, and increase access to counsel.
“Yesterday’s announcement is a major step forward,” said Byrne. “But this is only the first step. No family seeking protection in the United States should be held in a detention facility. Detention is damaging to children and their families, even when that detention lasts less than two weeks. Many families held at Berks were detained for weeks or longer.”