The Trump administration's separation of migrant children from parents has sparked bipartisan backlash across the United States. But detaining families together could soon become another political flashpoint.
Political pressure forced President Donald Trump to sign an executive order to stop splitting up families last month. Now attention has turned to how the government will treat migrant families that it detains together while parents go through the U.S. legal process. One possible model sits more than 1,800 miles away from key points on the U.S.-Mexico border, tucked into rural southeastern Pennsylvania. It's a model that has raised controversies of its own.
A short drive away from the city of Reading, winding, tree-lined roads lead to a brick nursing home where residents sit outside on summer afternoons. Up a hill sits a similar brick building, flanked by a lawn, soccer nets and a basketball court.
The facility, which a sign identifies as the "Berks County Residential Center," would appear wholly unremarkable if not for a sign reading "no trespassing, secure property" and a guard keeping watch over children playing outside. About 50 adults and children currently live in dormitory-style housing inside the building while the government processes their asylum claims.
Years before Americans took to the streets to demand that Trump reunite families separated at the border, activists started pushing Berks County and the state of Pennsylvania to close the 96-bed migrant housing facility. The backlash started bubbling up in 2014, when the Obama administration tried to deter asylum seekers by detaining families and trying to swiftly process their cases before potential deportation.
Now, as the Trump administration tries to find its way around legal roadblocks and end its widely condemned separation practice, the Berks County facility offers a view of what more widespread, long-term family detention could look like. Activists and lawyers who have kept track of abuses at the center worry about the spread of family detention — and the distress they say comes with it.
"[People who oppose family separation] may think the problem is solved if families are detained together, but we have years of reports to show that it is traumatic whether you're with your parents or not," said Carol Anne Donohoe, an attorney who has represented Berks County detainees since 2014 and helped to found Aldea — The People's Justice Center, which does pro bono legal work in the region.
"No one has to be separated and no one has to be detained," she added.