Despite renewed attention to a Pennsylvania family detention facility in the wake of President Donald Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy, the Berks County Residential Center will remain open.
On Thursday, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution during its final session before summer recess calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to issue an emergency order that would immediately close the center, which can house up to 96 people at any given time.
“The imprisonment and prolonged detention of asylum-seeking children and families is inhumane and counter to international law,” the resolution said.
Cheers and applause broke out in council chambers as the resolution was introduced. Some people held signs that asked “What would Jesus do?”
"It’s inhumane the state of Pennsylvania is locking up families and their kids," undocumented immigrant Carla Rojas said. "How can you go to sleep knowing you’re taking away these children’s childhood. It’s time to put yourselves in their shoes."
Rojas, who came to the United States when she was 7, said she is still traumatized by the experience.
"I know what these children feel," she said in reference to those housed at Berks. "They feel scared, they feel overwhelmed ... for coming to this country and getting rejected, getting treated like they are criminals for wanting safety and a better life."
In an emailed statement to NBC10, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor “has done everything in his power to revoke the license from Berks.” Despite his efforts, the center remains open under the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security.
“Governor Wolf urges the Trump Administration to shut this center down,” Abbott said in the email.
The Berks detention center is caught in a years-long legal quagmire, operating on a license that allows it to remain open despite years of violations and public outcry.
Some of the youngest residents at the center have spent half their lives in detention, NBC10 reported last year. 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.
In 2016, a 40-year-old guard was found guilty of raping a 19-year-old Honduran woman. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
All of the detainees housed at Berks 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.
In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) 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 last year.
The detention center appealed, and that process remains tangled up within the state DHS.
Meanwhile, DHS officials continue to regularly inspect the facility. On Tuesday, an annual inspection found several violations. However, “there weren’t any that warranted emergency closure,” Colin Day, spokesman for DHS, said.
Previous violations include keeping inadequate medical logs and not obtaining written consent from parents or legal guardians before treating children with medication, according to records obtained by NBC10.
Those who have been keeping a close eye on Berks worry that Trump’s executive order to keep migrant families together will only lead to more people being sent to Berks.
“That’s exactly what’s gonna happen and that’s exactly why it’s so important for Gov. Wolf to take action to close the prison ... before the federal government tries to open other family prisons in this state or other states,” David Bennion, Free Migration Project, said.
Pennsylvania is already housing some 50 child immigrants in Pittsburgh as part of the federal government's “zero-tolerance” policy, according to Attorney General Josh Shapiro. They are being housed at the Holy Family Institute in Emsworth, a Catholic social services organization, which is under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Health and Human Services. The children, who are between the ages of four and 17, are from countries including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Shapiro said he will join a multistate lawsuit against Trump's zero tolerance policy.
“The federal government is treating children like prisoners; detaining them behind chain-link cage fencing, and cutting off from communication with their parents. This is unconscionable treatment,” Shapiro said in an emailed statement. “In Pennsylvania, a parent would be arrested if they treated their children this way.”