Late last year, some colleagues and I toured the Berks Family Residential Center, located about 65 miles from Philadelphia in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Berks facility houses family units awaiting trial in immigration proceedings after having been detained by the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE operates the facility in concert with Berks County. According to our guide, most of the residents only stay in the center for about two weeks as they await the next step in their cases.
While touring the facility, we observed residents lounging in spacious accommodations that included pool tables, unlimited snacks and two libraries. There was little, if any, security presence. There were no barbed wire fences keeping residents from wandering too far after a basketball game outside. We asked our guide if anyone had ever left the facility, given the lax security. He responded, “Why would they want to?” before adding that some previous residents had actually tried to return to the facility after their release, wanting to stay longer. Since beginning operations in the mid-1990s, no residents have ever walked off from the facility, even though there is nothing stopping them from doing so. That speaks volumes to the conditions in the center and of the ICE and Berks County staff who interact with the residents on a daily basis.
As we continued our tour, it quickly became apparent why none of the residents had ever attempted to leave. They were given access to outdoor and indoor recreation spaces, books, computers and phones. All residents participate in field trips to local parks, farmer’s markets, libraries and universities.
Complimentary medical care is provided to all residents by medical staff, including registered nurses, licensed mental health professionals, physicians and psychologists available 24 hours a day. All residents are treated to dental care by a local practitioner. Any resident in need of medication receives it free of charge, including a 30-day supply after their release.
All children are given vaccinations, free of charge, corresponding with their age and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations. All children are given an educational assessment within hours of their arrival and given schooling by bilingual teachers certified by the state of Pennsylvania, working in modern classrooms that contain SmartBoards and iPads.
As we finished the tour, I found it hard to imagine that anyone could claim with a straight face that the residents at the Berks center were suffering or were deprived of their civil rights, although groups such as the ACLU are claiming exactly that. On the contrary, a summary of my observations quickly dispels those notions. These services are, of course, all possible because of the American taxpayer. Our guide told us it costs ICE about $700 per day to house a single resident in the facility. That covers:
• Comprehensive medical care for all residents, including mental health and dental exams;
• Medication, including a 30-day supply following release;
• CDC-recommended vaccinations for all children;
• Three meals a day and unlimited access to snacks;
• Education for all children;
• Available adult education and parenting classes for adults; and
• Free coats (if the family unit is released during cold-weather months); and other clothing.
Additionally, the residents are allowed free rein to use the following recreational facilities:
• A soccer field;
• A basketball court;
• A tetherball set;
• A large playground, including new swing-sets;
• An indoor recreation room, including a rock-climbing wall;
• Two libraries, including a law library with full access to LexisNexis; and
• An exercise facility.
During the brief zero-tolerance crackdown this summer, critics described family detention facilities as “inhumane” and charged that children would experience trauma from living in them. Personally, I did not get that sense from my visit. Instead, I saw competent and compassionate employees engaging with the families who were receiving free healthcare, free medication, free clothing, free food, free education, and a free place to stay while they started their journey through our immigration court system. Indeed, why would anyone want to leave?
• Preston Huennekens is a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies.