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Shut down Berks sign. Photo: Carlos Nogueras
Shut Down Berks spearheaded an 8-year campaign to end migrant detention centers in the state. Photo: Carlos Nogueras / AL DÍA News

Immigration rights groups in PA are calling on Biden to course-correct amid frustration over standing detention centers

As President Joe Biden prepares to deliver a much anticipated State of the Union address, immigration groups in Pennsylvania remind him of his past commitments.

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It’s SOTU day, and the U.S. is on high alert in preparation for Biden’s remarks, from rapid response GOP groups preparing rebuttals to fact-checking media organizations keeping the message in check. 

In PA, immigrant rights organizations are calling on the president to follow through on his commitments on immigration and to shut down Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, poised to become the largest detention center in the Northeast, in partnership with GEO Group, a private prison group. 

“We’re raising up the call and highlighting the fact that this is a detention center that’s opened up in Biden’s home state,” said Erika Guadalupe Núñez, Executive Director of Juntos, a South Philly-based immigration advocacy group. 

Moshannon is the latest in a string of detention centers owned and operated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, across Pennsylvania, usually located in more rural areas of the state. 

Immigration rights groups celebrated a small victory after Berks County announced the detention center — which to its closing date, had a total of six detainees — would officially close its doors at the end of January. 

All detainees were released from detention prior to Berks’s shuttering, per sources familiar. 

One center closed, and a bigger one opens

But what sets the Moshannon facility apart from the rest is its capacity to house approximately 1,900 beds, making it the largest in scale known in PA. 

It originally came into the spotlight in late 2021 after the ACLU leveled a lawsuit on behalf of Juntos against Clearfield County for holding closed-door negotiations with GEO Group to repurpose Moshannon into an immigration facility, violating the state Sunshine Act, which requires public discussions before an agency engages in business. 

When the lawsuit settled and the Clearfield County Commissioners took public comment — mostly negative —- they moved forward with the contract. GEO Group was initially set to enter negotiations with the Bureau of Prisons and earn a revenue of $42 million before the feds declined to enter into a contracting agreement in January 2021. 

Clearfield County Commissioners were keen on contracting GEO and expressed disappointment upon learning that Moshannon was out of the contractual picture. 

“We hope that the GEO Group is able to successfully market this great resource so that the facility is able to continue to employ many Clearfield County citizens for years to come,” a statement read. 

Ten months later, GEO Group finalized an agreement with Clearfield County and ICE to refashion Moshannon into an immigrant detention facility. 

“Juntos went down to Clearfield County to testify against the opening of Moshannon and the common rhetoric from the folks in that county, and the common rhetoric brought in by GEO Group was that it would bring an economic boom,” Guadalupe Núñez said. 

And although the Berks facility was considered largely unprofitable, immigrant detention centers are a cash cow for private prison groups. In 2019 and 2020, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, 28% of GEO Group’s revenue was derived from ICE contracts, earning them $708 million in 2019 and $662 million in 2020. 

Biden mum on refashioned detention centers

In January 2021, around the same time the feds declined to contract with GEO Group, the Biden administration issued an executive order directing the Department of Justice to phase out contracts with private prisons. 

Biden’s order, however, did not extend to the Department of Homeland Security, meaning ICE could continue to contract with private prisons in PA and across the country. 

“Our elected leaders should be doing so much more than offering jobs that involve keeping other people in cages. There could be deep investments in communities that actually bring about a more holistic type of growth than a detention center would,” Guadalupe Núñez said. 

PA has a number of elected officials who have called for the halt of endeavoring with GEO. The most high-profile among them all is Governor Josh Shapiro, who, in early January, told AL DÍA he was not comfortable with counties engaging in business with for-profit prison entities. 

He urged the legislature to “put a bill on my desk.” 

U.S. Senator Bob Casey, for years, also urged previous DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to end the practice of detaining families as individual asylum cases were reviewed. 

At the county level, Congress members Mary Gay Scanlon and Dwight Evans issued a letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, the sitting DHS Secretary, to reconsider the feds’ position on moving forward with Moshannon, arguing that it isolated the detainees from receiving legal assistance, among other concerns. 

“Despite campaigning on the promise of ending prolonged detention and private prisons, Biden has instead become the Detainer-In-Chief of our time,” Guadalupe Núñez said. 

Immigrants yearn for change

‘Marthita’ is an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant whose time in the U.S. totals 15 years. She lived her first seven years in Alabama but later moved to Philadelphia for better work opportunities.

Marthita remembers her first few years well. 

“Fleeing. Fleeing like a criminal. Constantly afraid at work. Any time you heard a siren, you’d say, ‘they entered the factory. We have to hide.’” 

Fifteen years ago, Marthita fled Guatemala for fear that she would lose her life to gang violence. 

A single mother to six kids, Marthita’s income helps sustain her family back home, who rely on her for monetary support. 

“I left my youngest son when he was seven. He’s 15 now.” 

In 2020, she found a PA-based immigration advocacy group, where she volunteers for causes like Shut Down Berks, a coalition that embarked on an eight-year campaign to pressure Berks Residential Facility into shutting down. 

“All we want is to live life here as human beings. To be accepted. Mr. President, please accept us. Help us have what we couldn’t obtain in our home countries,” said Marthita. “That’s why we fled our countries. Because we are abused, violated, hit, assassinated, that’s what we’re fleeing. And when we come here, it’s very similar to that.”

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