When the Obama Administration expanded its use of family detention last year with the surge of 70,000 Central American immigrants who crossed the border into Texas, the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania transitioned from a children’s residential center into a family detention center. In late October this year, the state’s Department of Human Services notified officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which leases the facility from the state, that the facility is out of compliance with its current license and threatened to shut it down early next year.
ICE’s family detention centers hold undocumented men, women and children who entered the United States seeking asylum. The Pennsylvania detention center is one of three facilities of its kind in the country. The other two are located in Texas—Karnes City and Dilley. Currently, nearly 2,100 parents and children are held in the centers, according to a report.
Over the summer, a federal judge issued an order that disallows government agencies to hold families in unlicensed facilities. The order called for officials to limit the detention of families to not more than 20 days. Previously, plans had been in the works for the transfer of at least two dozen mothers and their children, including a family that has been detained for more than a year, to the Berks facility.
Jeh Johnson, who heads up the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is keenly aware of the predicament presented by a massive influx of immigrants weighed against the processing bureaucracy.
“We are transitioning our family residential center facilities into processing centers where individuals can be interviewed and screened rather than detained for a long period of time,” he wrote in a DHS memo. “Families who establish a credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries are now being released after asserting their claim, under conditions designed to ensure they will appear in immigration court for their case.”
In the memo, Johnson also said DHS is putting additional emphasis on addressing those who don’t meet the persecution criteria for asylum seekers. “The Department will also continue to expedite, to the greatest extent possible, the removal of those who are not eligible for relief under our laws,” he says in the memo. We take seriously our obligation to secure our borders and will continue our aggressive enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws.”