Berks County’s Immigrant Detention Center Is Finally Closed. The Work Isn’t Over

Officials should convert the onetime prison into a space that supports local families and meets the community’s needs.
Photo courtesy of Make the Road Pennsylvania Facebook page.

Written by Flor González, for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star

After eight long years of fighting, we finally Shut Down Berks.

As of January 31, Berks Detention Center will finally close its doors for good, closing the long and ugly chapter of immigrant incarceration in our backyard. Every woman who has been detained has now been released, finally free to live with the dignity every person deserves.

It was years of community organizing, led by the families incarcerated at Berks who bravely spoke up and told their stories, who we can thank for this victory. Now, with this shameful detention center finally closed, it’s time to envision something better for our community. After years of harming and separating families, Berks should be converted to a space that supports local families and meets the community’s needs.

I know for a fact that when families are together, they thrive the most and are the happiest. I have seen first-hand through how much damage it can do to families when they are pulled apart.

While I have lived in this country for 22 years, I am undocumented, which means every day of my life is a risk. There is a risk that I could be stopped by police or ICE and be deported.

My worst fear is being separated from my young children. For eight years, as a member leader of Make the Road PA fighting for dignity and respect for immigrant communities and working families, I worked alongside the Shut Down Berks Coalition  to close this harmful facility that is just 20 minutes from my house.

The women, families, and children incarcerated at Berks are not so different from me or from you: We all want to live happy, safe lives and to be able to provide for our families. But being undocumented, I feared I too could one day be confined to behind walls far away from my three children.

Organizing alongside immigrant communities, our north star is an fair immigration system that recognizes the dignity and worth of every single person, and treats us all with respect. Closing Berks was a necessary step on our journey to that vision, and it was achieved thanks to tireless organizing over many years.

The mothers, parents, and children who shared their stories of pain and separation but also their dreams for freedom and dignity and a different world put pressure on our local, state and federal officials to close Berks, and showed us all what is possible when we organize together. I’m so proud that my 10-year-old daughter can see what it means to organize and fight for her people. Even though she’s a citizen, her future is deeply connected with the rights of her immigrant parents.

The closure of the Berks County immigrant jail was a huge step forward toward a future where all people are treated with respect, but it is not enough. For far too long, our government has wasted precious dollars on the harm of incarceration instead of the help that true supports and services could provide.

Berks County is home to many working families who need more from the government than they’re currently getting. Reading, a struggling city of 88,000, has the country’s largest share of residents living in poverty. With Berks finally shut down, our local officials must turn to the future, and listen to what our community needs. Instead of reopening the facility to cause more harm by detaining other people, Berks should be converted to a space that supports local families and meets the community’s needs.

As a mother in Berks County, I know how much working families are struggling to stay together with a safe roof over their heads and food on the table.

Berks County families have real issues that need solutions. Government resources should be used to support people and equip us struggling families with the tools we need to live safe, stable, and happy lives. Those walls brought nothing but pain and trauma, destabilizing hundreds of families for two decades. It’s time the county offers support services to increase self-sustaining families.

While today we celebrate that we no longer have an immigrant jail in Berks County we are aware that our fight to end immigrant detention must continue.

A lot of people don’t know that in 2021, ICE opened the largest immigrant detention center in the Northeast Region– Moshannon Valley Detention Center with nearly 1900 beds in Philipsburg, Pa.

We must organize statewide and with other states in the region to close this detention center. Our communities are resilient and we will continue to work tirelessly to end immigrant detention in this country.

Call the Berks County commissioners and tell them it’s time to do their jobs and truly serve the community. Instead of throwing more time and dollars into the bottomless pit of incarceration, which fails to support families or make communities safer, Berks Commissioners should begin a real community engagement process to gather feedback on what local residents need, and how the facility could serve the public good.

And although I cannot vote for which Commissioners take office, I have the power of my voice to persuade them to do the right thing by supporting local families with support instead of separation. I will continue to use my voice, and I encourage you to do the same.

Flor González is an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Reading for 22 years, and a member-leader of the advocacy group Make the Road Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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