After waiting about 20 minutes for the field director of the Philadelphia office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the people who gathered Feb. 22 at the Callowhill Street office to call for the release of detained immigrants taped a cease and desist letter to the front window.
The state Department of Human Services declined to renew the license of the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township, which ICE leases from the county to hold undocumented immigrants. The license expired Feb. 21.
Security officials at the ICE office in Philadelphia initially said Thomas Decker, the field director, would meet the group outside. Later, they said he would not come out. They said the group could mail its letter to Decker.
“Shame on you,” the group chanted, after giving up on, “Show your face, Decker.”
Juntos, a Latino human-rights organization in South Philadelphia, organized the group. Representatives from GALAEI: A Queer Latin@ Social Justice Organization also attended, including youth coordinator Fran Zavala Cortes and board vice president Miguel Andrade.
About 25 people gathered to deliver the letter that called for “the immediate release of all families … and that the center be shut down completely.” Many then boarded a bus to the Berks County Residential Center to support the families who they say should be released because of poor treatment, ranging from the refusal of proper medical care to children found to have a fungus on their genitals to inadequately responding to allegations that a guard raped a 19-year-old female detainee.
Zavala Cortes said Juntos reached out to GALAEI about a year ago to form a partnership.
“We understand the intersections of different identities,” he said. “There are a lot of LGBT folks who seek refuge as immigrants.”
Zavala Cortes said GALAEI is not aware of any LGBT undocumented immigrants currently being housed at the Berks County Residential Center.
“We at GALAEI don’t know,” he said, “But more than likely there are.”
“There have been a lot of shifts at Berks in the last few months with some people being let go,” Zavala Cortes said, adding it’s difficult to establish communication with the detainees because immigration advocates are often denied entrance to the center. Zavala Cortes was among those who traveled to Berks Feb. 22.
Jasmine Rivera, lead organizer at Juntos, said Berks County is appealing the state’s decision not to renew the license of the residential center. But, she added, the families in the center should not have to remain detained during the appeals process.
“As far as the state is concerned,” Rivera said, “Our hope is their response is ‘You’re right. The families should be released.’ ICE is just completely ignoring the law.”
Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, said the argument that Berks is not a secure facility, and therefore not in violation of its former license, is not valid. She recalled traveling to Berks over the summer and could see a line of cones set up between her group and several women who were detained at the center.
"If it's not a secure facility, why can't they come out and why can't we go in?" Almiron asked.
Rivera said supporters of immigration rights are encouraged to contact the state Department of Human Services to thank the organization for declining to renew the license for the Berks County center and ask for it to be completely shut down.