A small group of parents, some holding young children, huddled behind a fence, waving to a crowd of more than 150 protesters calling for their release from the Berks County Residential Center.
The protesters wore masks, social distancing, during a two-hour Free our Families vigil late Friday afternoon, July 17, in which they pleaded to free five children between the ages of 1 and 11, and the eight adults at the center.
The protesters carried signs saying “Together and Free,” “Families Belong Together,” “Help,” and “No Child Shall Be Detained” at the Bern Township facility.
The children were set to be released Friday, July 17, but U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in central California granted a 10-day extension.
The protesters braved the heat for two hours as they listened intently to speakers, including retired Berks County Judge Arthur E. Grim and state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, calling to free the children.
Bridget Cambria, a Philadelphia immigration lawyer, said she was so happy to participate in the rally hosted by Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group devoted to closing the residential center in Bern Township.
“This is the first time I met my clients,” Cambria said, waving to the group of immigrants behind the fence at the center, which opened in 2001. “These families are denied the right to even ask for asylum.”’
Cambria reminded the protesters that there are two other detention centers in Texas that are also holding asylum seekers.
Grim, a longtime juvenile court judge, said housing children in a residential center is a travesty of justice.
“There were times when kids did things they shouldn’t do and it was necessary to hold them accountable,” Grim said. “This is not what we are talking about today.”
Grim compared the treatment of children in the residential center to some of the 3,000 juveniles who were improperly locked up in “cash for kids” cases he presided over as a senior judge.
Two judges in Luzerne County were sentenced to federal prison on charges of imposing harsh sentences to increase funding of a for-profit detention center.
Grim said housing immigrant children is against our country’s history of being a beacon of hope for people seeking safety.
Grim said keeping the facility open is not worth the $1.3 million the county receives from the federal government.
Schwank also called on the county commissioners and Gov. Tom Wolf to release the children.
“This is not the way you treat children,” Schwank said. “My concern is the kids.”
Schwank, minority chairman of the appropriations committee, said she will work on obtaining state funding to retrofit the residential center for another purpose.
Schwank then quoted former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how the government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick and the handicapped.”
Then Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Tikkum Olam Chavurah in Philadelphia spoke: “God is one and we are all one. We cannot let the detention center stand and imprison people.”
Participants read some quotes from the parents in the facility.
“We have already been here for more than three months,” a detainee identified as M.E.L. said. “My daughter doesn’t speak anymore because of the trauma she experienced. She can’t hear properly because she needs to see a specialist and none was provided for her.”
The county manages the facility for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement department. The facility has space for 96 people.