Children detained at Berks Detention Center sue state during COVID-19 crisis

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Protesters from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee stand across the road from the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard where US President Barack Obama is golfing during his summer holiday August 15, 2016.
The protesters are calling for the release of 22 Central American hunger-striking mothers held for immigration offences for up to one year at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

HARRISBURG, Pa, (WHTM) –Families with children as young as one-year-old detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Berks County Residential Center are suing the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

The lawsuit which reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is for failing to take emergency action to protect detainees from infection by the novel coronavirus. 

The Free Migration Projects says PA DHS needs to issue an Emergency Removal Order to close the Berks detention center due to “COVID-19 sweeping ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania”.

A PA DHS spokesperson stated that the agency “cannot unilaterally shut down the facility without an immediate threat to health and safety.”

Free Migration Project also released the following statement on their website:

The need for PA DHS to issue an Emergency Removal Order to close the Berks detention center is urgent: COVID-19 is sweeping ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania. Yet a PA DHS spokesperson stated that the agency “cannot unilaterally shut down the facility without an immediate threat to health and safety.”

PA DHS’s lack of action to address the grave public health risk will have consequences not just for the families held at the family prison, but for staff, their families and communities, and ultimately the public health of all Commonwealth residents.

“Since we arrived at Berks County Residential Center along with my wife and my two-year-old daughter, my child has been severely sick,” stated one of the detained parents. “We hear about social distancing, but how can we do that when we are all detained together in one building?”

The family prison is one of only three in the country in which immigrant parents and children are imprisoned together. Since 2016, PA DHS has allowed Berks County to operate the detention center under contract with ICE using an expired child care license. State law requires that PA DHS take immediate action to remove children from a facility where “incompetence, negligence, or misconduct” in operating the facility is likely to constitute an “immediate and serious danger to the life or health” of the children. 

As documented in the lawsuit, the family prison is not protecting detained families from the coronavirus. The family prison is not testing families or staff for COVID-19, providing adequate personal protective equipment, or sanitizing surfaces in common areas. Most importantly, social distancing under CDC guidelines is impossible for families detained in an enclosed congregate setting with shared bathrooms and communal eating and sleeping areas. A documented history of medical neglect at the family prison heightens the risk that children and parents who fall ill will not receive life saving medical treatment. 

Jacquelyn Kline, a lawyer representing families detained at the family prison, on behalf of Aldea said, “COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire through ICE detention centers in Pennsylvania, and the families are trapped at Berks while the state looks the other way. Governor Wolf needs to take emergency action to ensure that these children are protected during this health crisis.”

The Shut Down Berks Coalition has called for Governor Wolf to direct PA DHS to issue an Emergency Removal Order to protect detained families during the COVID-19 crisis. Last week, PA DHS told the Philadelphia Inquirer that there is no “immediate threat to [the] health and safety” of the detained families despite reports that COVID-19 is running rampant in ICE detention centers. 

Nonprofit organizations Aldea and Free Migration Project are leading the lawsuit, which asks the state Supreme Court to take emergency action through an extraordinary “King’s Bench” petition to compel PA DHS to issue an emergency removal order. The Court has previously granted King’s Bench petitions enabling the release of rapper Meek Mill from custody and ordering special elections to fill vacancies in the state House of Representatives.

The King’s Bench petition can be accessed here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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