Bishop Peggy Johnson will speak at a prayer vigil outside the Berks County Residential Center (1040 Berks Road, Leesport PA) on Sunday, March 12, at 3:30 PM, and some members of the Eastern PA Conference are expected to join her there. Prayer vigils, led by interfaith religious leaders, occur there monthly to protest the federal government’s family detention policy and the yearlong detention of more than immigrant 40 mothers and children, mostly from Central America, who are awaiting hearings on their requests for asylum.
Activists have held numerous vigils outside the center, drawing dozens, even up to a hundred participants at times, to stand in solidarity with the women and children while exposing their captivity to the outside public and media. The detained residents came to the U.S. to escape violence in their home countries, but many suffer from emotional stress and despair from their isolation and inadequate living conditions in detention. Some express appreciation for the vigils and often join in the encouraging prayers and lively gospel songs from inside the center’s fence.
Various religious and affiliated organizations sponsor the events, including Interfaith Witness, Shut Down Berks! and Make the Road. United Methodists are often among them, especially members of United Methodist Women and Reading area churches. One frequent attendee is Jose Albarran, a Latino Path 1-trained Church Planter working with St. Matthew’s UMC in Reading to cultivate a new Latino faith community.
“This is a very sad thing for women and children to be detained here for many, many months,” she said. “It is hard on the mothers and the children. We know and are sorry that our laws have not been followed as they are written. But God is on the side of those who suffer. We will pray for justice and mercy, and not only pray, but also talk to those in our government who are making these laws.”
“Thank you for supporting us!” shouted one asylum-seeking mother from behind fencing during a recent vigil. “Thank you for letting us know we are not alone.”
Berks County has an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to staff and operate the center where immigrant families are detained, as they go through their asylum proceedings. ICE reimburses the county and also pays more than $1 million a year for using the building. It is one of three family detention centers in the U.S. The other two are in Texas.
Numerous human right abuses have taken place, including cases of medical neglect and the rape of a 19-year-old woman by a now-imprisoned guard. About 20 of the women center went on a hunger strike last fall, demanding their release from detention as they continued their asylum hearings.
“The Pennsylvania Council of Churches grieves the mistreatment and unreasonably lengthy detention of refugee mothers and children who have been forced to live in the Berks County Residential Center,” reads a statement by the PCC, which will coordinate the March 12 vigil. “Their detention further perpetuates the xenophobia that has become increasingly common in our state and nation. We mourn that the lack of ‘legal documentation’ makes us fearful of ‘the stranger,’ when instead we are called to follow the Biblical precedent of extending hospitality to them.”
(See our 2016 story, “Long-detained immigrant families in PA arouse concern, protests”)