The Center on Immigration joins the fight to shut down Berks and to support Haitian immigrants

By Rodrigo Campos-Sánchez
October 5, 2021

Those who have been running the Berks County Residential Center call it a “Family center.”

But crowds of protesters who gathered at Independence Hall know that it is a detention center and are speaking out to call for its closure, saying that it is a detention center that victimizes immigrants and then deports them.

Protestors who were at the Independence Mall Photo by Rodrigo Campos-Sánchez

“Shut down Berks!” and “Sí se puede!” — (“Yes it’s possible!”)!” protestors chanted.

On Saturday, Sept. 25, dozens of groups, bystanders and Cabrini’s Center on Immigration gathered at Independence Mall to protest the new plans for the center. Among the protestors was a congresswoman who toured the Berks facility twice and like other attendees, wants to end the practice of imprisoning immigrant families.

“They like to call it a family center but it is a detention center. I was there and met with families that were there for more than 100 days. It is a place people are deported from. The description of it is gravely wrong,” Madeleine Dean Cunnane, congresswoman, said. “It is so important that the Biden administration recognizes with humanity, the refugees that are coming to our borders. Now, with the 15,00 Haitians seeking asylum, I call for the Biden administration to stop deportation flights and sending these people back to a country that is sadly still suffering from a horrible earthquake, gang violence and the assassination of its president.”

The issues in Haiti underscore the need to address this now.

From the opening of the Berks County Residential Center in 2001 to 2021, activists have not stopped the clash to shut down Berks. Finally, for now, there are no families in the detention center. But there are thousands of Haitian immigrants being deported back to Haiti which at the moment, is a country that does not have an official president since President Jovenel Moïse‘s assassination on July 7, 2021.

When President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. stepped into office on January 20, 2021, many families stepped out of the detention center. But the center has yet to be shut down permanently. The possibility of filling the detention center again may be high since commissioners signed a new contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to now house only adult women at the detention center. Women that may be Haitian refugees.

Protestors who were at the Independence Mall Photo by Rodrigo Campos-Sánchez

“It has been hard for the Haitian community. Flight deportations have not helped the country or the people. Many have lost connections to the country being that many have not seen Haiti in years. The United States got smart by removing everyone from under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas. But they will still lock refugees up, put them in centers very similar to Berks County Residential Center and deport them,” Steve Paul, Pennsylvania state director, said. “As a black immigrant from Haiti, I and many like myself can say that we feel invisible and can say that we feel that we are seen as less than human. The United States has a history of anti-blackness.”

“The Center on Immigration is usually involved in advocacy and has partnered with other schools in the past. We amplify the voices of many and present ourselves at events. We have also met at Governor Wolf‘s office in the past to push to shut down Berks,” Arelis Amonte, programs coordinator from the Center for Immigration, said.

Many correlations for years have been asking for justice for families who have been detained.

“Our correlation has been asking for justice for years. Today we will leave the clear message that an immigrant in Pennsylvania will not be imprisoned for the simple fact of being an immigrant. We do not need more jails. We instead need social services. Maribel Garcia-Pérez, community organizer of CASA, said. “The Haitian community seeks security and our government closed the door on them. The Biden administration is using title 42 to deport them. Deportation flights back to Haiti should be detained promptly. We believe that we can make justice for everyone.”

“What I saw at Berks detention center was soul-crushing. As a father, what I witnessed, is unforgettable,” Christopher M.Rabb, Pennsylvania state representative, said. “Today, I am not here as a democrat. I am here as a father, someone who is going to follow everyone who is on the front lines and do anything that I can do. If you go to Harrisburg and want to cause trouble, you let me know. I will support all of you.”

To mirror what the people who were incarcerated in the detention center wanted, Las flores de libertad — (The flowers of liberty) were created by a few mothers in 2017 and displayed at the Independence Mall during the protest. 

“When we think of freedom and liberty, we are asking for freedom and liberty for everyone. The flowers represent everything we want to see,” Michelle Angela Ortiz, visual artist, said.

Rodrigo Campos-Sánchez

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