“Shut down Berks!” yelled a group of demonstrators gathered Sunday afternoon outside the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. They braved freezing rain and muddy fields to hold an hour-long vigil for families detained at the center, some of whom have been there for more than one year.
Armed with signs that read “Free Our Families” and “No Jailing of Mothers and Children,” the group sang songs through a loudspeaker and collected Valentine’s Day cards intended for the 77 asylum-seeking detainees.
“How are you feeling?” Adanjesus Marin, director of Make the Road Pennsylvania, asked through a microphone.
“Very bad,” one young mother yelled from across the street, her small child jumping up and down waving to onlookers.
“Not one of these families has broken any laws,” Marin said after putting down the microphone. “The county should stop wasting money on keeping them here.”
The BCRC operates through "an intergovernmental service agreement" between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the county, according to an ICE spokesperson. The latter have been criticized for keeping the facility open despite a recent decision by the Department of Human Services to not renew its license. The commissioners appealed in the fall, allowing the center to continue operating while a judge decides the center’s fate.
“The BCRC has been found to meet and/or exceed all regulatory requirements with regard to the medical care and safety provided to all the families residing at the BCRC,” the commissioners said in a statement.
The majority of those detained at Berks came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Many of them approached border guards in Texas or Arizona hoping to gain asylum or be reunited with family already living in the United States.
Instead, the migrants were sent to detention centers in the Southwest and then eventually up to Berks County to await immigration hearings.
Typically, these hearings take place within three to four weeks, but detainees at Berks have been held indefinitely despite pleas from their lawyers and immigration advocates.
“We shouldn’t be doing this in Pennsylvania,” demonstrator Dennis Brunn said. “We come out here so the women and children know they have not been forgotten and the county knows we have not forgotten.”
Only about one-third of the families held at the BCRC have lived there for more than 12 months. This cohort has been caught in a legal battle that started last year after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a habeas case challenging the expedited removal of more than 20 families back to their native countries.
The 29 women and 35 children named in that lawsuit all fear retaliation from local gangs or human traffickers that demand large amounts of money or other forms of payment. In one case, a woman’s debt to her smuggler has been accruing interest since she stepped onto U.S. soil, according to Erika Almiron, executive director of Vamos Juntos, an advocacy group based in Philadelphia.
After being arrested and now detained for more than one year, the woman has not been able to earn money to pay him off. She is convinced the so-called coyote will kill her if she returns, said Almiron, who occassionally visits the woman at the BCRC.
“That is devastating to hear. It’s literally life or death and no one seems to be paying attention," Almiron said.
Brunn is paying attention right now, he said. He drove more than one hour from Philadelphia with a group from his church, Unitarian Universalist, whose advocacy wing frequently partners with Make the Road Pennsylvania. It is his third time participating in the monthly vigil, and he plans to continue returning until either the center shuts down or the detainees receive asylum.
“Many of the people here have been at the commissioners’ meetings and they stonewall and say it’s good for the county in terms of income, but we think there is a moral cost they are paying,” Brunn said.
The county allotted $9.1 million from its annual budget to operate the facility in 2017, but it is unclear how much of that comes from the federal government. Calls to the county commissioners office was not immediately returned.
The BCRC is nestled deep inside Berks County, about 4 miles from the Reading Regional Airport. It is situated at the end of a windy road, tree-lined and frostbitten with winter chill. An Audi car dealership and golf club anchor the street’s entrance. At first glance, the road leading to the detention center could be mistaken for the driveway of a private college campus.
But toward the end of County Welfare Road sits the Berks County Prison and the family detention center, betrayed only by a few signs and several law enforcement vehicles.
A basketball hoop, two soccer goals and various abandoned toys dot a manicured lawn where mothers and children play.
During Sunday’s vigil, several of the families ventured outside into the cold to hear songs dedicated to them. About a dozen women and children lined up against a fence, hoisting toddlers onto their shoulders or holding them close against the bitter wind.
Those standing across the street waved back and collected small juice boxes, colorful yarn and Valentine’s Day cards to present to the detainees. The crowd, mixed in both age and race, read from a songbook and stumbled through lyrics written in English and Spanish:
“Ay ay ay ay, canta y no llores,” the crowd crooned.
“Cielito Lindo” was one of the most recognizable songs even to the English-speakers in the crowd. Its lyrics, when translated to English, mean “sing and don’t cry.” That is the goal of these monthly vigils, Marin said.
“Song, we feel, is a very important way for us to connect and build our community,” he said. "Sometimes, [the families] sing back to us."