Above photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images.
It’s a major win and one that took years for the Shut Down Berks Coalition.
The Berks County Residential Center, a facility that has been the subject of much scrutiny and protests over its previous housing of migrant children and now migrant women, will be shutting down, according to an announcement from Berks County Officials issued on Wednesday, Nov. 30.
County officials were informed by the federal government that it will be ending its contract on Jan. 31, 2023.
The public relations officer for the county, Stephanie Weaver, issued a statement that management and staff had been made aware of the government’s decision to shut down the center.
It was not specified if employees would lose their jobs or not. According to Weaver, they employ 60 people. Federal government officials have not responded to questions about the decision to close the facility.
“The County of Berks would like to thank the BCRC staff, employees and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for their service and commitment to this program,” the statement read. “County officials are also committed to do everything possible to support these employees during this transition.”
The Pennsylvania County oversaw the facility and was reimbursed by the federal government. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency leased office space and accounted for about $1 million in annual revenue to Berks County in return.
The detention center has been repurposed multiple times since its inception. The Berks County Detention Center opened more than 20 years ago in 2001, and was even at one point, one of three in the U.S. where asylum seekers and their families were held. Earlier this year, it was made into a facility that holds only women.
The center also replaced the previous facility there, the Berks Heim Nursing Home, housing 32 migrants — 15 adults and 17 children — from Colombia. It was coined as a short-term option for asylum seekers or those awaiting deportation.
However, in the last 10 years or so, the facility gained a notorious reputation for mistreatment of migrants in its custody. Organizations like the Shut Down Berks Coalition have called for its closure over the last six years.
They argued that holding children in that kind of facility was inhumane and cited mistreatment and poor living conditions. Federal and county officials always denied those claims, but now its sudden closure says otherwise.
Last year, President Biden’s administration announced that it was no longer looking to detain families, and as a result, the center sat empty for most of that time.
Then, ICE and county officials made up a new contract for the facility that then turned it into a facility that holds only migrant women. County commissioners approved the new contract and its subsequent changes last Summer.
The closure is big news for all the advocacy groups that have fought the battle against the county and federal officials, as well as for all asylum seekers who no longer have to fear being held in that facility. Some protests even reached the White House as they looked to Biden to close the center.
AL DÍA News covered a recent protest this past August from the Shut Down Berks Coalition in which they went to the White House, demanding Biden to shut down the facility. Coalition spokesperson Adriana Torres-Garcia offered more insight into what the fight looked like in the waning days of 2022.
“We have been protesting for this for a long time. We felt that it was necessary to come directly to the White House because it didn’t seem like Biden was understanding how important Pennsylvania is for the midterms and for the upcoming elections,” said Torres-García. “He is not listening to us. We’re here to expect him to pay attention to us and listen to the demands of the people. The people don’t want a prison in their backyard.”