On November 30, 2022, Berks County, Pa. officials announced that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will end its contract with the county on January 31, 2023. This will bring to a close the detention of asylum seekers at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., which first opened in 2001.
As of January 5, all but two of the more than 30 women detained there have been released.
The Shut Down Berks Coalition, part of the advocacy work of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, shared the news in a statement:
After 8 years of community organizing, the Federal government has announced the closure of the immigrant prison in Berks County. . . . This was the result of a collaborative effort between many individuals including people who have suffered the violence of detention at the Berks Detention Center.
The center has been the subject of multiple protests over the last decade. Many calls have been made to close the facility, including a 2019 action involving Philadelphia Yearly Meeting young adult Friends in which they held an outdoor, semi-programmed meeting for worship across the street from the center. Protestors allege mistreatment of detainees and assert that any detainment of asylum seekers—especially children—is inhumane.
“I think that this is probably one of the most unchristian ways to behave in society,” said Jennifer Hanf, an attender at the nearby Reading (Pa.) Meeting who got involved with Shut Down Berks in 2015. “It’s an extension of our violence against humanity that we would look at people as others, as undeserving.”
Tonya Wenger, of Shut Down Berks Interfaith Witness, noted that Quakers were one of the religious groups that helped organize a regular monthly vigil outside the center. “The immigrant community asked us to take this on . . . because they felt it was risky for them . . . especially if they’re undocumented, to be holding vigils. The Quaker[s] . . . were one group that stepped up and helped with that.”
“We must address this as Christians,” said Hanf, “and on moral foundation, regardless of what faith you are, this is about our need to survive together, and to extend compassion to each other.”
The center stopped detaining families in early 2021, but a year later became a facility for holding immigrant women.
Following the November 30 announcement of the center closing, the Shut Down Berks Coalition shifted its focus, demanding “that those currently detained be released and for the center to be repurposed into a space that can provide services to the surrounding community.”
Recent posts on the coalition’s Facebook page urged supporters to join a letter campaign and make calls to select officials to ensure the release of the two women remaining.