Inquirer Editorial: Stop mistreating detained immigrants

Protesters called for closing the Berks facility last year.
Protesters called for closing the Berks facility last year. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 15, 2016

In January 2015, a worker at the federal government's immigrant detention center in Berks County was arrested for repeated sexual contact with a 19-year old who was being held there. One incident was witnessed by an 8 year-old child detainee.

Later that year, a human rights group found that the Berks detention center staff performs "night checks" every 15 minutes, using flashlights that repeatedly wake up the women and children held there. That kind of nighttime disruption is especially alarming to the detainees, almost all of whom are fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries and seeking asylum.

A human rights attorney reported a case where a 2-year-old who was vomiting blood was told to drink water and sent back to her quarters, still wearing a shirt smeared with blood.

A parent held at the Berks center filed an official complaint about her five-year old daughter, who suffered a case of diarrhea that lasted three weeks and received nothing to treat the potentially life-threatening condition.

The federal government's response to her complaint was shockingly bureaucratic: "Thank you! You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country."

Due to the poor conditions, children held at the center commonly suffered pneumonia, according to an attorney helping the detainees. Children routinely had to share sleeping quarters with adult strangers, sometimes of the opposite sex. Though the vast majority of those being detained had fled abuse and violence in Central America, the center had no Spanish speakers on its mental health staff.

What the federal government has permitted at the Berks center is a horrible way to treat those trying to stay alive by fleeing here for protection. The oppressive conditions appear to have been part of a calculated policy to deter those fleeing violence in their home countries from coming to the United States: Word would get out that if they came here, months of harsh detention awaited them.

In delivering that deplorable treatment, the center violated a long-standing federal court order severely limiting how long the government can incarcerate children in immigration cases.

Pennsylvania state officials have done their part to end the nightmare taking place in Berks County. They refused to renew the center's license to hold children after Feb. 21, but the center appealed and remains open.

With around a hundred beds, the Berks center is the smallest of three federal centers for processing children who have fled to the United States for protection from violence in their home countries. The federal government has proposed doubling the number of women and children held there. That should not happen.

The record demonstrates that the Berks center is too poorly run to deliver the humane treatment that those fleeing persecution deserve. It should be closed.

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