A controversial detention center in Pennsylvania could be a model as Trump looks to detain migrant families together

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump is trying to end his migrant family separation policy, which could lead to the extended detention of families together.
  • A facility in Pennsylvania that currently keeps families together provides a view of what such detention could look like.
  • Lawyers and activists have alleged abuses at the center, which Berks County operates for the federal government.
  • Both the federal government and the county have defended the conditions at the facility.
Berks Family Residential Center 
Source: ICE

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.

How the detention center works

Started in 2001, the Pennsylvania facility is the oldest and smallest of three family detention centers operating in the U.S. Berks County manages the facility for the U.S. government, making it unique. Private prison companies run two larger facilities in Texas.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays Berks County about $1.1 million a year to rent office space, according to the county. The Pennsylvania center employs about 66 staff, the Reading Eagle reported.

Currently, the building houses 24 men and 24 children, County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt said at a meeting last week. It's the only family detention facility that holds fathers. Most of the current residents came from Guatemala and seek asylum in the U.S. They do not face any criminal charges while kept at Berks.

Donohoe says Customs and Border Protection agents arbitrarily decide whether to detain migrants and have them go through an interview to determine whether they would win an asylum case, instead of going right before an immigration judge. Migrants can spend weeks at the Berks facility, but some have stayed there for more than a year.

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If the Trump administration can find its way around legal restrictions to detain families together instead of separating them, the Pennsylvania facility could become a model for how to handle other asylum seekers who come to the U.S. That worries activists such as people involved in the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which has lobbied for the state government to close the facility amid alleged mistreatment of people living there.

"I think that what we're seeing with [Trump's] executive order is trying to balloon family detention. The moment that I heard that announcement from Trump, I could see right through it," said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a Philadelphia-based organization which helped to found the Shut Down Berks Coalition.

Nearly 20 people from the group protested on Sunday, blocking the road to the detention center. Most of them were arrested and later released, according to the Reading Eagle.

Trump administration and Berks County defend the facility

Critics of the facility worry about the potential for more widespread use of family detention.

They have pointed to numerous issues at the Pennsylvania site. In 2016, a guard was convicted of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at the facility. A child witnessed it.

Mothers detained there went on a hunger strike in 2016. In a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, they said their children "have thought about suicide because of the confinement and desperation that is caused by being here," The Guardian reported at the time.

Lawyers who represent detainees also argue the center has not provided proper medical care for children — even delaying action to take care of kids who threw up blood or wet their beds as a result of more serious conditions. Both ICE and Berks County have defended the conditions at the facility.

The federal agency "is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe and humane environments and under appropriate conditions," said an ICE official, who commented on the condition of anonymity. The official called residential centers "an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity as families await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries."

ICE highlighted access residents have to recreation, a library, legal assistance, medical care and education for children. Images from 2015 provided by ICE show a room scattered with toys, brightly colored chairs and a television. A video from that year shows a classroom with children working on computers and reading, and captures dormitory-style beds up against one another, some strewn with stuffed animals and blankets.

Berks Family Residential Center 
Source: ICE

Critics argue that both the medical care and education provided are inadequate.

Barnhardt, one of the Berks County commissioners, also disputed last week that the residents are mistreated, saying "we run a real, real first-class operation there." He argued that opponents of the center and media outlets have taken issues out of context.

"If you have a problem with the law, then you need to take it up with your federal lawmakers. This is not something for the county or the state to change the immigration laws," he said. "This is something we have been providing since 2001 as a service to the federal government and I think we’ve been doing a pretty laudable job of this and I just really get tired of some of the media hounding and harassing."

If Congress does change immigration laws to allow extended family detention — an unlikely prospect at this point as lawmakers have failed to reach any consensus on the issue — it could potentially lead to more operations like the Berks facility.

How Trump administration's legal strategy fits in

The Trump administration is aiming to end its policy of splitting up migrant children from parents. The so-called zero tolerance policy, started in May to deter border crossings, led to the criminal prosecution of every adult who crosses U.S. borders illegally. Under the practice, children were taken into government custody separately from their mothers and fathers.

Facing widespread humanitarian concerns about the policy, Trump signed an executive order in June aiming to keep families together during the legal process. The order read: “It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

He directed the Department of Defense to provide existing facilities for the Department of Homeland Security to house migrant families in, or create new ones to the extent allowed by law.

Trump also instructed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to file a request to modify the Flores settlement, which the government interprets as barring the detention of children for more than 20 days. He asked Sessions to seek changes that would allow DHS “under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings.”

Trump: We will keep the families together

A federal judge in California shot down the Trump administration's request to indefinitely detain families earlier this month. It is unclear now whether the Trump administration will challenge the ruling.

That’s where the model of the Berks County detention center comes in. Under the Flores settlement, children have to be transferred to an unsecured, licensed residential facility after 20 days, according to Donohoe. Those two conditions allow extended detention currently — and the government thinks the Pennsylvania facility meets both of them.

The Pennsylvania family detention center is the only one of the three in the U.S. that ever had a state license. The state revoked its license in 2016, but the detention center continues to operate amid a court fight over the license.

ICE also argues the facility is unsecured. Donohoe and Aldea colleague Jackie Kline contend that it is a secure building — in part because ICE has previously told attorneys that residents would be charged with a crime if they left. They also question why the facility is considered unsecured if "secure property" signs sit in front of it.

Regardless, the government currently believes it has the authority to detain people for an extended period of time in Pennsylvania. But if the U.S. sends more people to Berks County, the center will quickly reach its 96-bed capacity.

Kline noted that another floor was added to the facility to roughly double its capacity. However, she said it cannot yet be used because of the licensing fight.

If the Trump administration can find a way to make other facilities meet the unsecured, licensed criteria, it could also detain families indefinitely at those sites. It is unclear whether any other states would license a facility similar to the Berks County detention center.

The center stays open for now

Despite the outcry, the detention center appears far from being shut down at the moment. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has pushed for the facility's closure, but his office says it does not have the authority to close the site right now.

"Governor Wolf urges the Trump administration to shut this center down, and, as he has repeatedly, the governor requests that the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security consider community-based options to serve these families while they await immigration proceedings," J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, said in a statement. He said that Berks County and the federal government "have said that they would continue to operate the facility even without a state license."

Advocates such as Almiron of Juntos have pushed the state to issue an emergency removal order to allow the families to leave the facility. However, Wolf's office said inspections have found no grounds to take such an action.

Many local officials have supported the facility. The Berks County commissioners have backed keeping the center open.

After touring the site recently, Democratic state Sen. Judy Schwank — who represents the area — said "it certainly seems like people are being given the basics of life there," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Christopher Rabb, a Democratic state lawmaker who represents the Philadelphia area, took a more critical tone in saying he has an issue "in how we allow local governments to profit off of human misery," according to the newspaper.

The issue has not yet found its way into U.S. congressional campaigns in eastern Pennsylvania, an area crucial in determining which party controls the House after November's midterm elections. But it does highlight the differing philosophies Pennsylvania's two Senate candidates have toward immigration policy.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey raised concerns about the facility even during the Obama administration. In a 2016 letter to then-DHS Secretary Johnson, he said that "we can do better than the treatment they are receiving" at Berks.

Republican Rep. Lou Barletta, Casey's immigration-hawk challenger, took a decidedly different stance on the facility. He questioned the effectiveness of tracking migrants with ankle bracelets while they go through legal proceedings — one of the possible alternatives to detention.

“I don’t want families to be separated and I don’t want anyone to suffer, but I took an oath to defend the laws of this nation and my priority is to protect the jobs of workers in this nation and the safety of our families," Barletta said in a statement.

Even if politics prevents the center's closure, critics plan to keep up their push against the Berks facility. More protests are expected in the future.

Activists will continue to argue that detaining families together is not the proper way to halt the Trump administration's family separation policy.

"I would say that they're both horrendous solutions to people who are seeking refuge and migration. That question is like saying, 'Do you want somebody to cut off your arm or your leg?'" Almiron said.