Berks County, PA – A Berks County judge ruled today that Berks residents who sued the County Commissioners for voting to support ICE’s plans for the Berks family prison without public discussion could move forward with their claim. The Shut Down Berks Coalition and Berks community members gathered at the Berks County Courthouse to show solidarity and oppose the expansion and repurposing of the Berks County immigrant family prison into a prison for immigrant women. Since 2001, ICE has used the Berks County Residential Center to imprison immigrant families to the detriment of their physical, mental, and emotional health. After years of organizing for the closure of this prison on grounds of its inhumane practices and illegal detainment of immigrant families, on February 26, 2021, the Biden administration finally released all the people incarcerated to their family members and sponsors while they await individual court cases. However, on February 25, 2021, the Berks County Commissioners voted in favor of ICE’s white paper proposal to expand bedspace and transform the center into a prison for immigrant women.
“The County Commissioners excluded County residents from any discussions about a matter of importance to the community—the imprisonment of asylum-seekers at a County facility.” said Jennifer Lee, from the Sheller Center at Temple Law School, and counsel for the community members. Our lawsuit claims that “the County Commissioners violated the state Sunshine Act when they voted on whether to support ICE’s plan to expand the facility and convert it to a women’s detention center without public discussion.”
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that all decisions by public agencies be made in public and be open for public comment. Despite this law, Berks County Commissioners Christian Leinbach and Michael Rivera voted to support ICE’s conversion and expansion plan without making any deliberations public and without providing reasonable opportunity for public comment about their decision. This action violates the Sunshine Act and undermines the integrity of the democratic government. We stand with the Berks County community members in their lawsuit against the commissioners, and we affirm the need for collaboration between the people in political power and their constituents in all public decisions.
“As residents of Berks County, we are outraged by the conduct of our Commissioners…”, said Juana Mora, an organizer with Make the Road Pennsylvania and a Reading community member. “…They are making decisions that negatively affect our community, by bringing a prison for immigrant women to our backyard. This prison will only impoverish our community and will take away our peace. As a woman, I cannot allow immigrant women who come escaping from violence and poverty and who come here to improve their quality of life, to be incarcerated in my backyard.”
“We, as residents of the county, are just looking for more transparency from the Commissioners who work on our behalf.” said Alex Elizabeth, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a Berks County resident. “We want to fully understand important decisions that affect us and our neighbors.”
Furthermore, we stand in support of the Shut Down Berks Coalition and people fighting against the expansion and repurposing of this facility into a migrant women’s prison. We also reiterate that until this prison is permanently shut down and until ICE and the Department of Homeland Security stop using this facility, the fight is not over. The Berks County community has made their voices heard time and time again. They want and deserve real human services that support and care for, not criminalize, people. This facility should not sit and remain vacant; instead, it should be repurposed for community programming that will improve the lives of those who call the county or the state their home. However, the re-purposing of the center should move forward democratically in collaboration with community members. The community’s actions today, embody these principles and our demand for accountability.
Counsel for the plaintiffs include attorneys with the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple School of Law, Aldea – the People’s Justice Center, Syrena Law, Al Otro Lado, and Free Migration Project.
For more information, please visit: https://freemigrationproject.org/make-the-road-v-leinbach/
The Shut Down Berks Coalition is a group of organizations and individuals fighting to close the Berks County family prison in Pennsylvania and end the practice of imprisoning immigrant families in the U.S.