At first glance, it resembles a doctor’s office, or perhaps a rec center. Security footage depicts sterile gray hallways leading to common areas with office couches and rainbow-colored, child-sized chairs. At the door to an outdoor field, there are tricycles and assorted balls, and in a small chapel with wooden benches, a detainee sweeps the floor. Correctional officers, referred to as “residential counselors,” sport khakis and blue polo shirts.
But the Berks Family Residential Center, located about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is also a place where immigrant parents and children are held for indefinite periods of time without adequate healthcare, according to multiple complaints and lawsuits. In one 2016 case, a guard there was convicted of “institutional” sexual assault; his victim was a 19-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras who had been detained with her three-year-old son for 7 months.
It is facilities like Berks — operating in a gray area between federal prison and childcare provider — that may begin to sprout up across the country following President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday that he will end his administration’s practice of forcibly separating migrant parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We are going to keep the families together,” Trump said, at a signing ceremony in the Oval Office for his executive order.
Framed as a solution to a political and humanitarian problem, the document specifically instructs the Department of Homeland Security to identify or build detention centers, like Berks, capable of detaining whole families while their immigration cases are decided.
The diaspora of detained immigrants in the U.S. includes unaccompanied minors in a variety of facilities — soon to include barracks at four military bases — or foster care; men and women applying for protection and held without their children in adult detention; and others funneled into the criminal justice system and incarcerated in federal prisons.
More than 2,500 immigrant parents and children, meanwhile, are held together in three family detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which have a total capacity of under 3,500. (The other two are in Texas.) Given that 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 adults over just a one-month period recently, more of these facilities will likely be necessary to accommodate Trump’s latest plan.
The average length of stay for families detained in 2017 was 58 days, according to data released by ICE under the Freedom of Information Act. But some have been locked up for almost two years, according to their attorneys.
Migrant families have been on this seesaw before.
In the early 2000s, it was often the federal government’s practice to send parents to detention facilities and their children to shelters and foster homes, effectively separating them. When Congress discovered this was happening, in 2006, it directed the Department of Homeland Security to instead keep families together, in less penal, more domestic settings.
But what DHS came up with — a guarded, fenced-in, former medium-security prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America called the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility — wasn’t exactly homelike. In response to public outcry, the Obama administration decided in 2009 to end family detention at Hutto, which was soon repurposed as a facility for women only. Berks remained open.
Then, after an influx of tens of thousands of families arrived at the border in 2014 due to severe gang violence in Central America, family detention made a comeback. Facilities in Dilley and Karnes, Texas, were opened — and the national capacity for parents and children locked up together was greater than at any time since Japanese internment.
In 2015, a federal court ordered ICE to release children with their mothers under an existing Department of Justice legal agreement, called the Flores settlement, requiring that kids be held in the least restrictive settings for no more than 20 days.
Yet under that ruling, the government can still detain parents. The Trump administration said Thursday that it therefore had no option — if separation was no longer politically or morally feasible — but to hold children in the same facilities. It filed a request to modify the Flores agreement so that family detention would not be subject to the 20-day rule or to licensing standards.
Berks has already evaded the Flores settlement, as it had a childcare license. The certification was not renewed in 2016, but the county has appealed that decision, leaving the facility open and in limbo.
Because of this, families often spend no more than 20 days in one of the Texas detention centers but then are moved to Berks for indefinite periods of time.
Jacquelyn M. Kline, whose law firm has represented families at Berks, described poor medical care and multiple cases of abuse or neglect. “We had a young girl who was throwing up blood for days, babies who were so dehydrated they had to be taken to the ER,” she said.
According to Kline, guards at the facility perform constant bed-checks while the mothers and children are sleeping. “Imagine every night for two years you’re woken up with a flashlight every 15 minutes.”
Carol Anne Donohoe, a lawyer who worked as a substitute teacher at Berks from 2004 to 2007 and now represents families there, said that “we have a statement by a mom saying the staff member would give her daughter candy and ask her to take her hair down and dance for him.”
Both lawyers filed multiple claims with Berks and ICE. Donohoe received an email from Berks promising an investigation of the staff member, who still works there.
Supporters of family detention counter that it is far more humane than separation, and is also the next-best way of deterring parents and kids from continuing to flood across the border from Central America.
In an emailed response to the allegations made by Berks detainees, an ICE spokeswoman pointed to a 2017 report by the DHS inspector general stating that family residential centers are “clean, well-organized, and efficiently run,” with playrooms, social workers, and educational services. She also said the agency has zero tolerance for all forms of sexual abuse, that all detainees receive a comprehensive physical exam within two weeks of their arrival, and that if there is a male head of household with a female child, they are roomed separately from other family units and always within the staff’s line of sight.
Gladys, who asked that her last name be withheld for her privacy, was detained at Berks for over a year with her two-year-old daughter, from 2015 to 2016. They shared a room with two other families, enduring the nightly flashlight checks.
Gladys described substandard medical attention when her daughter was vomiting blood for months. She also witnessed a guard kissing a detainee, and reported it to staff.
But the authorities already knew about the relationship, she said, and just laughed. (This was the same guard later convicted institutional sexual assault of a detainee.)
With the example of Berks in mind, opponents of family detention insist that President Trump’s return to it now is just another way to keep doing irreparable harm to parents and children. These facilities are remote, with little access to legal services or family support. Berks is county-run and has been licensed, while the two Texas detention centers are unlicensed and privately operated by CoreCivic and The GEO Group.
Releasing immigrants who have not committed other crimes on parole or bond, potentially with an ankle bracelet, would be far more humane, the critics say. It has also proven to be just as effective in the past. Under ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, which included telephone check-ups, in-person visits, and GPS monitoring, the appearance rate for immigration court proceedings was over 99 percent, according to 2013 data.
Jasmine Rivera, an organizer of the Shut Down Berks campaign, said Trump’s decision was “the bait and switch — make people freak out over family separation in order to normalize family detention.”
One of the many reasons she and other advocates call family detention immoral: reports by human rights groups that at Berks, children who misbehave are threatened with separation from their parents.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Carol Anne Donohoe's last name.