Some 40 families currently detained at a Berks County detention center could finally face immigration hearings after waiting more than a year to appear before a judge.
The Berks County Residential Center (BCRC), located about an hour outside of Philadelphia in Leesport, holds 77 asylum-seeking women and their children predominantly from the Golden Triangle region of Central America -- comprising El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The region has been riddled with extreme violence and poverty in recent years.
Some of the youngest detainees at the BCRC have spent half their lives in detention, according to multiple attorneys working with the families. Activists and lawyers worry that conditions are not suitable for children -- they are woken up every 15 minutes during bed checks, do not have access to home-cooked meals and can only go outside with guard supervision.
Last year, a 40-year-old guard was found guilty of institutionally raping a 19-year-old Honduran woman. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
The detention center is one of four facilities in the U.S. where the federal government detains women and children who enter the country without authorization. The other three are in Texas.
A new memo issued earlier this week by the Department of Justice could expedite hearings for these detainees, who have been held inside the facility for up to 16 months in some cases.
“The women and children at Berks are stuck in limbo,” said Bridget Cambria, volunteer attorney at the People’s Justice Center. “They can’t be released and they can’t be deported.”
The DOJ memo, written by MaryBeth Keller, the federal government’s chief immigration judge, rescinded portions of former President Barack Obama’s controversial “rocket docket” immigration policy, which prioritized immigration proceedings for families with children and unaccompanied minors who crossed into the U.S. without documentation.
Instead, the DOJ will now focus on detained adults without children, detained adults with children and minors who do not have U.S. sponsors.
“We think this is a good thing,” said Matthew Archambeault, a private attorney in Philadelphia. “The moms and children in Berks have been denied due process for too long.”
All of the detainees housed at the BCRC came to the U.S. seeking asylum. Many of them freely approached immigration officials at the border in hopes of finding protection and shelter following their journeys north. Some, like the Honduran rape victim, were initially turned away at the border but later returned on their own.
“It’s not against the law to seek asylum,” Cambria explained.
Once inside Berks, many of the detainees simply waited indefinitely. The goal of Obama’s so-called “rocket docket” policy, instituted in 2014 in response to the flood of undocumented immigrants from Central America, was to direct a “surge of resources” to ensure “cases are processed fairly and as quickly as possible, ensuring the protection of asylum seekers and refugees while enabling the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for asylum or other forms of relief from removal,” Obama said in a memo.
But a recent report by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that 70 percent of these cases were processed through immigration courts without legal representation. The processing took only a few weeks or less, according to the report. In at least 43 percent of those cases, decisions were made with or without the asylum-seekers present at the hearing.
In September, 22 families staged a 16-day hunger strike in protest of their “indefinite detention.”
“We have relatives and friends who would be responsible for us and who wait for us with open arms, but your Department of Homeland Security has denied our release,” the group wrote to former United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
“We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground. While here, our children have told us they sometimes consider suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense,” the letter read.
Those stuck inside Berks remain in a legal gray area. A federal stay prohibits families from being removed despite having sponsorship from loved ones living in the U.S. Their detentions have continued with no end in sight, prompting Archambeault, Cambria and others to repeatedly call on Gov. Tom Wolf to intervene and shut down the detention center.
“You have to make the brave move to say you care more about children,” Cambria said.
While immigration officials grapple with the fate of detainees, the BCRC itself faces uncertainty. In 2016, the state Department of Human Services issued a license revocation and non-renewal notice after finding that “the current use of the Berks County Residential Center ... as a family residential center is inconsistent with its current license as a child residential facility,” a DHS spokesperson said in a written statement.
The detention center appealed, allowing it to continue operating “status quo” until a judge issues a decision, according to a BCRC spokesperson.
Archambeault won’t wait that long. He is preparing to file a new habeas complaint in federal court as early as Friday. Several such lawsuits have been filed in recent years, but the federal government has argued that habeas corpus, the right to challenge imprisonment, does not apply to these detainees.
“Unfortunately, sometimes these things come down to politics,” he said. “Does Wolf want to be part of [President Donald Trump’s] machine?”
The governor has called on both DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services to consider community-based alternatives instead of detention.
"Child mental health experts, court rulings, and previous federal policy all support the principle that these children should be served in a non-secure setting," said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolf's office.
"The governor would like to see the center closed."
In a statement, officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement tell NBC10 that detainees live in an open environment with play rooms, medical care and educational services.
"Over the last 15 years, the center has consistently met or exceeded rigorous state and agency operational standards. During its decade and a half in operation, the agency has taken great care to ensure the center’s operations were fully transparent through regular facility access to all stakeholders," the statement read in part.