A Bad Deal: A Proposal in Clearfield County Would Allow Biden Administration to Expand Immigration Detention in PA

Credit: Keith Lane/ACLU

by Vanessa Stine and Erika Guadalupe Núñez

Fighting against new and repurposed immigration detention centers in Pennsylvania is beginning to feel like a horrible game of whack-a-mole. From Berks County to York County, civil rights and immigration advocates have been working tirelessly to end immigration detention across the commonwealth.

In August, York County’s agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, ended, and the county stopped housing people in immigration detention at its jail. Enter Clearfield County commissioners who, on September 28, agreed to a contract with ICE and the private prison corporation GEO Group to open a new immigration detention center. This contract was signed without offering the public an opportunity to comment on the proposal. The county commissioners communicated privately with both ICE and GEO, but not with the public. Anyone who was skeptical of the planned opening of Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility for immigration detention did not have the opportunity to say so.

That’s a violation of the state Sunshine Act. So the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued on behalf of two local residents and the immigration advocacy group Juntos. Days later, the county commissioners announced a special meeting to accept public comment. We hope that the county hears people’s concerns and halts further action on the contracts.

With nearly 1900 beds, the proposed ICE facility at Moshannon Valley would be the largest immigration detention facility in the Northeast and is likely to become the hub of immigration detention in the region. It will be overseen by ICE’s Philadelphia field office, which has its own recent history of ignoring its own rules and unnecessarily putting lives in danger.

The current immigration detention system deprives people of their freedom and their liberty. It tears families apart. And it’s unnecessary. People who are held in civil immigration detention should be home with their loved ones while their cases proceed; release is permitted under ICE’s own guidance and well within their authority.

Immigration detention is also dehumanizing and dangerous. There are well-documented cases of abuse against people in immigration detention, including in facilities here in Pennsylvania and in facilities managed by GEO Group. People held in immigration detention have been subjected to medical neglect, including exposure to COVID-19 and other viruses, and physical and sexual violence.

Just in the past two years, we have seen the horrific outcomes of ICE detention, which have been exposed in lawsuits like ACLU-PA’s cases challenging detention in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and in coalition efforts to shut down immigration detention centers in Berks and York Counties.

Soon after his inauguration, President Biden signed an executive order to end all Department of Justice contracts with private prison companies like GEO. But that executive order does not yet apply to the Department of Homeland Security, and that means ICE can continue to contract with private prisons in Pennsylvania and across the country.

President Biden has the authority to cancel the ICE contract with GEO Group in Clearfield County. He should do just that.

What’s more, Clearfield County commissioners and all public officials across Pennsylvania would do well to remember their obligation to open government and to their constituents’ voices, opinions, and concerns. In this age of frayed democracy, such democratic principles have never been more important.

Vanessa Stine is the immigrants rights attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Erika Guadalupe Núñez is the executive director of Juntos, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Philadelphia.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.