POLITICS
10/23/2015 05:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2015

Pennsylvania Warns Family Immigrant Detention Center: Change Policies Or Lose Your License

Advocates want family detention ended entirely.

Eric Gay/ASSOCIATED PRESS
There are three family immigrant detention centers in the U.S., including the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas.

One of the three facilities that detains immigrant families in the United States will not be allowed to expand and could lose its license to operate from the state of Pennsylvania -- a major win for the advocacy groups aiming to shut down family detention.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services sent a letter on Thursday to the director of Berks County Residential Center denying a request to double its capacity from 96 to 192. That is because the facility is being used to hold "only refugee immigrant families" when its license is for "child resident facilities," Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas wrote.

If the facility continues to serve families rather than children, the department will not renew its license when it expires in February 2016, Dallas added.

The center in Berks County is the smallest and oldest of the three family immigrant detention facilities, all of which have been criticized for locking up women and children who in most cases are seeking asylum in the U.S. The advocacy group Human Rights First released a report in August alleging that treatment at the Berks facility was highly damaging to families who had already been through traumatic situations.

The Obama administration dramatically increased its use of detention for families last year, after a surge in apprehensions of mothers and children, including some children traveling without their parents. The Berks facility already existed, but the federal government created two additional and far larger ones in Texas: Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center, or as it is more often known, Dilley.

The administration has since vowed to scale back detention of women and children. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in May that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would work to process the families' cases faster to release women and children who are deemed eligible for asylum or other relief.

In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the family detention policy violated the 1997 Flores settlement, which says that undocumented children must be held in the least restrictive setting and immigration authorities should generally favor a policy of releasing them. The settlement prohibits detaining children for more than a few days in centers that are not licensed child care facilities.

After hearing a government response, Gee ordered the Obama administration in August to quickly release the children -- and in some instances, the mothers -- locked in family detention. She gave U.S. officials until Oct. 23 to show compliance. 

In order to comply with the ruling, the private companies that run the two family detention centers in Texas -- Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group -- have applied to license the centers as child care facilities. The Texas Department of Child Protective Services issued an emergency rule last month to start the licensing process, but the Austin-based group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the private prison industry, filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping it.

Attorneys for the Obama administration appealed Gee’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but nevertheless must show by Friday that the government has complied.  

ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said that "DHS has worked diligently to ensure that we are in compliance with all aspects of the court’s order" ahead of the deadline for compliance.

Berks was holding 56 people as of Oct. 20, while another 461 women and children were detained at Karnes and 1,558 people at Dilley, according to ICE officials.

Immigrant advocacy groups are advocating to have Berks shut down immediately, and considered the Pennsylvania government's decision to be a step forward. Erika Almiron, executive director of the group Juntos, said in a statement that it showed that the state " should have never licensed the facility to begin with."

"It also shows that Texas DHS should not be licensing the detention centers and that Berks is not the model institution ICE has claimed it to be," she said. "How can it be with all the human rights abuses occurring inside?"

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