Pennsylvania won't renew license of immigrant family detention center

Pennsylvania will not renew the license for its family immigrant detention center in Berks County, one of the three that operate in the United States, effectively ending family detention there.

According to a letter by the state's Department of Human Services, the facility is currently licensed as a "child residential facility" and will not be granted a new license until it goes back to operating as such.

The Berks County Residential Center houses dozens of undocumented immigrant families, mainly mothers and their children as they await immigration court proceedings or deportation.

"BCRC now serves only refugee immigrant families," read the letter dated Thursday from the Department of Human Services to Berks. "As a result, BCRC is no longer operating as the type of facility for which it was originally and continues to be licensed."

The state's decision is a win for immigration activists who for years have been fighting to shut down family detention centers like Berks, citing mental and physical abuse suffered by minors and their parents as a result of being held in detention centers for far too long — in some cases for more than a year.

“The Pennsylvania authorities' indication that they will not renew the Berks family detention facility's license is a recognition of the fact that children and their parents should never have been held there to begin with,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne in a press release.

“This is a tremendous victory for children, mothers, and fathers, and should send a message to other states: children do not belong in detention facilities, period,” she added.

The letter addressed to Berks from the Secretary of DHS Theodore Dallas, said that the 96-bed facility can reapply for a license if they once again operate as a child residential facility.

"Should BCRC choose to continue providing services to families rather than children, DHS will take appropriate action and does not intend to renew BCRC's license when it expires on February 21, 2016," the letter read.

The decision comes at a time when Berks, as well as the two other family detention centers in Karnes and in Dilley, both in Texas, face a Friday court imposed deadline to improve conditions at the centers.

U.S. District Judge Dolley Gee in Los Angeles ruled the detention centers could no longer hold children and families unless they posed a flight risk or a threat to national security.

The Obama administration agreed to improve conditions and not hold immigrant families for longer than 20 days. The administration has increased the use of family detention over the last year since last summer's so-called surge of undocumented minors came across the border from Central America.

Before last summer, there was only one shelter –Berks- and 96 beds nationwide that were dedicated to housing undocumented families. Today, there are more than 3,000 beds nationwide in three family detention centers.

Immigrant activists contend the Obama administration will not meet the deadline for end of day Friday to improve conditions at these centers.

“Yesterday’s announcement is a major step forward,” said Byrne. “But this is only the first step. No family seeking protection in the United States should be held in a detention facility.