The Homeland Security Department will close a migrant detention center it maintains in Pennsylvania after bowing to pressure from immigrant rights activists who say the facility is tainted by a history of detaining women and children.
Deportation officials said the Berks County Residential Center became “operationally unnecessary.”
“The decision to let the Berks facility’s contract expire reflects the agency’s current operational requirements, and we appreciate our long-standing relationship with the facility and its staff,” said David O’Neill, acting field operations director for the ICE enforcement and removal operations office in Philadelphia.
Berks opened in 2001 as a place to hold illegal immigrant families awaiting deportation decisions. It became a key part of the Obama and Trump administrations’ efforts to stop illegal immigrant surges.
The Biden administration has ended long-term family detention and instead moved to release illegal immigrants, making the facility obsolete. It was used most recently to house female migrants, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that mission, too, will end.
The announcement of Berks’ impending closure held huge symbolic value for immigrant rights activists.
“We are beyond thrilled that this cycle of violence will be coming to an end, and we look forward to seeing everyone 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 inflict more violence against immigrants or incarcerate more people as it transitions to a new purpose.”
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 traumas for children and adults in that place.”
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, found the timing of the announcement curious, given the Biden administration’s claims that it is struggling to find enough detention beds to place illegal immigrants. It made that argument to the Supreme Court in a case last week.
“They argue in one breath that they need to prioritize arrests and removals because they lack the resources to detain migrants, and in the next breath they voluntarily give up a useful resource for managing a target population which under the law they are obliged to detain and remove,” she said.
She called the closure “another step toward the Biden administration’s goal of dismantling immigration enforcement.”
“By closing this center, they are indicating that they see almost no role for detention at all — that there is no form of detention, no matter how soft, that will be used to support immigration enforcement,” Ms. Vaughan said. “They want to remove all obstacles to the swift resettlement of illegal border crossers into U.S. communities.”
Until the contract fully expires, the facility will continue to house women. Activists demanded their immediate release, but ICE shot down that idea.
ICE said about 40 detainees remain. All of their cases are expected to be finished by the end of the contract next month, but ICE said any detainees who haven’t received final decisions will be transferred elsewhere.
ICE said it will make transfer decisions with an eye to family ties and proximity to legal assistance.
Berks became a symbol of immigration enforcement in the Obama years, when migrant families first started surging over the border en masse.
Under Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the administration decided that catching and releasing families would invite more illegal immigration. Instead, they leaned on Berks and opened two other family facilities in Texas to detain the families until their deportation cases were concluded.
In most cases, that meant eventual deportation. When Central Americans learned of the deportations, migration to the border decreased, analysts said.
A series of court rulings in 2015 and 2016 imposed limits on holding minors who came to the U.S. as part of families. The time limits were far shorter than what was needed to complete deportation cases, which revived the catch-and-release policy.
The Trump administration fought back by trying to head off migrants at the border and struck deals with Mexico and Central American nations to try to block migrants.
The Biden team said those policies were too cruel and expunged them. A surge at the border quickly began.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as Mr. Johnson’s deputy, has relied on alternatives to detention, such as ankle monitors and check-in requirements, to try to keep illegal immigrants from disappearing into the shadows.
Berks, near Reading, Pennsylvania, is run by the county at federal taxpayers’ expense. It had a capacity of 96 beds and cost about $1.3 million a year to operate.
Its closure tracks with evolving views on illegal immigrants.
It was supposed to be a humane option, allowing illegal immigrant families to remain together while awaiting deportation decisions.
By the end of the Obama administration, and more so in the Trump years, activists complained about any detention.
In 2019, Pennsylvania’s state auditor said the facility should be shuttered. He said it routinely held children beyond the target date set by the court cases.
“Closing the Detention Center here in Berks County finally puts an end to the years of trauma inflicted against immigrants in our communities,” said Celine Schrier, an organizer for Berks Stands Up.