‘People deserve better.’ Outcry over federal immigration policy hits Centre County

Though Centre County is over 1,800 miles from the United States-Mexico border, current federal policy regarding immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers at the border has reverberated across the county and the state.

On Tuesday afternoon, a delegation made up of Centre County residents held a #CloseTheCamps rally at the Allen Street Gates. The rally was part of a national protest movement to close the detention camps holding immigrant children near the border, defund deportation and the family separation policy and reunite immigrant families that have been separated during the process of seeking asylum.

Phillip Zapkin, a resident of Bellefonte who works at Penn State, said he showed up to the rally because he feels there are serious human rights abuses — like migrants not being given cooked food or hygiene products — being committed in some of the detention facilities holding migrants seeking asylum.

“I think one of the most problematic things is virtually none of the people being held in these border detention facilities have actually been convicted of a crime. They’re being held because they’re asylum seekers,” he said.

Under U.S. law and the 1951 United Nations charter on refugee rights, he said, the U.S. is legally obligated to grant asylum seekers entry and asylum hearings. Therefore, not only is the migrant treatment inhumane, it is illegal, he said.

Bellefonte resident Jennifer Miller, one of the event’s organizers, said her 11-year-old daughter, Elliana, inspired her to hold the rally, because she was so shocked by what was happening to children in some of the detention facilities.

Elliana Miller, 11, holds her handmade sign Tuesday as she gathers with other community members at the #ClosetheCamps rally at the Allen Street Gates. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Elliana, who starts middle school this fall, said she thinks kids don’t deserve to be held in detention camps she considers to be like prisons.

“They don’t get any food, really, or toiletries, or really anything,” she said. “In fact, some kids my age are literally ... having to take care of kids who are infants and toddlers, which is horrifying.”

She said she knows the policies of holding children in detention camps didn’t begin with President Donald Trump, but she thinks his administration’s policies are making the situation worse for children and families.

“What really inspired me is: people deserve better, and we’re all equal,” she said.

Residents also spoke up at a community meeting held at Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe on Friday afternoon, where discussion turned toward children held at a Customs and Border Protection facility in Clint, Texas that employed inhumane conditions. Those children have since been moved to a different facility, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“The impetus for that town hall is a lot of concern and outrage by the community about the images they’re seeing in the news, and what’s happening on the border, and people have a lot of questions and want to have a better understanding for the policies that allow for this to happen and also what they can do,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a law professor at Penn State and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

Wadhia, who works with immigrant clientele all over the state, said there are many ways in which federal immigration policy has impact in central Pennsylvania.

Berks County houses one of three family residential detention centers in the whole country, she said, and many county jails in Pennsylvania house detained migrants picked up by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the York County Prison, she said, about a third of the jail’s 2,000 beds are occupied by detained migrants.

In Centre County, there are people in the community — students and residents — who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, meaning though they may have come to the U.S. illegally, they receive protection from deportation, Wadhia said.

Under Executive Order 13769 in 2017, which imposed a travel ban on seven nations including five that are majority-Muslim with certain case-by-case exceptions, many immigrants in central Pennsylvania were affected, said Wadhia. During the three-month ban, NPR reported, more than 700 travelers were detained, and as many as 60,000 visas were “provisionally revoked.”

In April 2018, the most recent version of Executive Order 13780 (which superseded EO 13769) banned some types of travel for nationals of Libya, Yemen, Iran, Venezuela and Somalia and all travel for nationals of North Korea and Syria.

“There’s not a week that’s gone by this entire year that I haven’t received a call, or had a consult with someone that is directly affected ... by the ban, or just afraid to travel, because they’re unsure of whether they’ll be able to return,” said Wadhia, who consults with clients in both Centre County and the wider central Pennsylvania region.

Several initiatives by State College Borough Council have condemned certain immigration policies under the Trump Administration. On Monday night, borough council passed a resolution condemning the treatment of migrant children in detention facilities at the border and the policy of separating migrant families upon entry to the U.S.

“One of the reasons for us (passing the resolution) is that there is an immigrant population here in State College, there are DACA kids at Penn State, there are people in my own academic department who are covered by the Muslim (travel) ban, and we feel very strongly that this is a strong moral issue,” said councilman Jesse Barlow, who attended the rally Tuesday.

Community members hold signs and gather at the Allen Street Gates Tuesday for the #ClosetheCamps rally. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Stemming from an incident in 2014 in which federal immigration authorities arrested a large number of undocumented restaurant workers in State College as part of a criminal investigation, the borough began working with the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic to ensure residents felt safe, said Assistant Borough Manager Tom King.

“We want anybody living here, who needs services ... regardless of their status in this country, we want them to come here, know that they’re safe to come here,” he said.

As a result of many meetings and community work with Wadhia, the center and State College police, SCPD implemented a policy a few years ago that makes it clear officers will not ask for a person’s citizenship status. As King and Wadhia put it, immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government, not municipal governments.

Congressman Fred Keller, who represents Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District that includes part of Centre County, recently showcased his support for a new house resolution that puts more funding toward immigration enforcement at the border and humanitarian assistance.

“This is only one step in the effort to enact meaningful solutions to our immigration crisis,” he said in a press release. “The fact is that bad actors from foreign nations are exploiting and mistreating individuals, including children, coming into our country illegally. The only way to stop this humanitarian crisis is to secure our border, fix our broken immigration system, and enforce our laws.”

The bill, amended by the Senate and then voted on again by the House, puts $65 million toward 30 new immigration judge teams, $21 million to “counter human trafficking,” $70 million to support law enforcement, and $145 million to support National Guard troops and other military assistance at the border.