Wolf Renews Effort to Close Berks Immigrant Detention Center

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Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has renewed its effort to revoke the license of the controversial Berks County Residential Center, which houses undocumented immigrant families detained by the federal government.

The state initially revoked license to operate the detention facility outside Reading in January 2016. But following more than a year of legal wrangling, an administrative judge within the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services ruled last month that the center’s license could be renewed.

The new request comes from the Bureau of Licensing within Human Services and asks that DHS Secretary Ted Dallas personally sign off on the revocation.

Dallas has 30 days to consider the appeal.

The residential center in Leesport is operated by Berks County and paid for by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Bureau.

As of early April, 51 immigrants were housed there, including 27 children. However, that number shrunk this week when a mother and her 5-year-old son were deported to their native Honduras by ICE. The two had been detained at the center since Dec. 18, 2015. ICE said they arrived there after being detained by border agents crossing illegally into the United States.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey wrote a letter to the Trump administration earlier this week urging the Department of Homeland Security to free the families held there.

Legal advocates for the woman and children say most at the center fled Central American countries in fear of violence and intimidation and are seeking asylum. A recent appeal by 14 women to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their cases was denied. The center is one of only three in the country that houses families. The other two are in Texas.

“Gov. Wolf has repeatedly urged the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security to consider community-based options to serve these families whenever possible,” the governor’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said in a statement Friday. “He believes that the center should no longer detain these families and his administration continues to pursue the revocation of their state license.”

If Dallas, the state DHS secretary, rules to revoke the center’s license, Berks County could challenge his ruling in Common Pleas Court.

If revocation of a state license to operate were to become permanent, Pennsylvania could not unilaterally shut down the center, according to a source familiar with the operations. However, detainment by ICE would be likely restricted to five days due to previous court settlements, the source said.

The current average stay for the women and children is about 18 months, advocates have said.

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