Closure of immigrant detention facility marks a big win for grassroots organizing

“It has been a long 8-year campaign where many people, most importantly those who have directly suffered imprisonment at Berks—Black and Brown families and women—have organized and lifted up their voices against the shameful practice of imprisoning immigrants.” -Adrianna Tores-Garcia

In November 2022, the federal government announced that Berks County Residential Center would be closing after twenty years of operating as an immigrant detention facility. The closure is a significant victory for the Shut Down Berks Coalition, comprised of several Bread & Roses grantees and other immigrant rights advocates who have long fought against the inhumane treatment of people detained at the Berks County Residential Center.

“It has been a long 8-year campaign where many people, most importantly those who have directly suffered imprisonment at Berks —Black and Brown families and women— have organized and lifted up their voices against the shameful practice of imprisoning immigrants,” says Adrianna Torres-Garcia, deputy director of Free Migration Project, an organizational member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition and a Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee.

The Berks County Residential Center became a federal immigrant detention facility in 2001, and in 2014 it became one of three immigrant family detention centers in the United States used to detain mothers and children, finally transitioning to a women-only facility. Throughout its history, Berks County Residential Center was fraught with allegations of human rights abuses including lack of access to basic medical care, denial of legal representation, and assault and exploitation. Because of these harms, the Shut Down Berks Coalition focused on an abolitionist model rather than working with an eye on reform.

“It was important to always make clear that our demand was to shut it down, not just create better conditions. For years, people from Berks County asked that the building be turned into something that provides health and human services or educational services, and not be used to detain people who are in this country trying to make a better life for themselves,” says Torres-Garcia.

The coalition used various tactics to keep pressure on the state and federal government to close the facility. “We did a lot of work to make sure the issue was in front of the media, such as writing op-eds, letters to the editor, and ensuring the press was there to capture our actions. We collaborated with artists to create signs for protests and to run art programs for the detainees when we were allowed inside. These programs were not only therapeutic but were also an opportunity for the women to radicalize and organize themselves,” says Torres-Garcia.  

The Shut Down Berks Coalition’s campaign spanned three presidencies, each with its own deficiencies when it came to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. The Obama administration expanded family detention in response to an increase in Central American migrants seeking refuge in the United States. The Trump administration enacted an infamous zero-tolerance policy that resulted in the separation of families and the detention of children.

Erika Guadalupe Núñez, executive director of Juntos, a Shut Down Berks Coalition organizational member and Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee, says, “Under Biden, there are more people in physical detention centers than under Trump. Biden has also kept many of Trump’s policies in place regarding the southern border.”

While the closure of Berks County Residential Center and the subsequent release of the remaining women detained there was a resounding victory, it also marked the end of the coalition. However, member organizations continue the fight for immigrant rights, such as ending the practice of medical deportations, lobbying for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status, and ensuring that immigrants have equal access to city programs and services.

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