Commentary from 4 faith leaders: Thank God the Berks immigrant prison is closing, but that’s just a start

Published by The Morning Call –
By Daniel Hernandez, Gregory Edwards, Elyse Wechterman and Ahmet Tekelioglu

Although we each come from different faith backgrounds, last month we all thanked God when the news broke that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract at Berks County Detention Center was ending.

We have each been a part of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which over the last eight years has highlighted the abuse of women and children at the women’s immigrant prison (and formerly immigrant family prison) just under an hour’s drive from Allentown. The coalition has spoken truth to power, demanding an end to the incarceration of people whose only crime was to seek refuge in the United States. President Joe Biden has finally heeded our demands: ICE has said the prison will close Jan. 31.

Shut Down Berks Coalition this week confirmed that the last immigrant woman detained there was released from the facility. This victory comes after eight years of hard work by Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth.

Now, Biden needs to ensure that the Berks County Detention Center can never be a prison again. So many people in our community have already been terrorized by ICE; friends, co-workers, neighbors, parents of children at your local school. No one should suffer like the children, parents and women there suffered the last 22 years.

There are plenty of options for the center other than a prison. Local residents have repeatedly asked that it be converted into something that actually benefits Berks County and the Lehigh Valley, like a drug treatment center or other health and human services.

But most importantly, to live in a truly just and free country, all immigrant detention centers need to be closed. Individuals and families running away from persecution, famine and other forms of injustice and seeking refuge need a welcoming community, not a prison.

Here in Pennsylvania, that means also closing the Moshannon immigrant prison, near State College. It means ending the ICE contract at Pike County, which saw scores of people held by ICE exposed to and suffering from COVID during the pandemic. And it means ending the ICE contract at Clinton County as well. The vast majority of people whose immigration status is ever in question live with family or friends until a date is set for a judge to review their case. There is no reason to jail them, and there never was.

Now is the time for Biden to make good on his promise of a country that welcomes immigrants. Changing policies and ending imprisonment of people seeking asylum — including families and children — will end a profit-making system that criminalizes and abuses immigrants.

Updating America’s archaic and complex immigration system will improve our economy and increase community safety. And based upon the teachings of all of our faith traditions, it is also the right thing to do.

Although we each come from different faith backgrounds, we are united when it comes to the teachings of the Prophet Isaiah (61:1), who says: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

Welcoming the stranger is an obligation that falls on all of us. We have faith that all people who hold justice and liberty sacred will help us remind the president that the inhumane treatment of those seeking safety in this land should end, and that all immigrant prisons are closed.

Imam Daniel Hernandez of the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley; the Rev. Gregory Edwards of POWER Lehigh Valley and Resurrected Life Community Church; Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, CEO of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; and Ahmet Tekelioglu of CAIR-Pennsylvania, are supporters/members of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of organizations and individuals fighting to close the Berks County immigrant detention center in Leesport.

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