Two immigrant families seeking asylum in the U.S. have filed a petition to participate in an ongoing legal battle over whether the Berks County Detention Center should lose its license.

In late January, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services chose not to renew the Reading-area facility's license because it was detaining families and children, violating state law.

As the center appeals that decision, former and current detainees want to get their experiences on the record with hopes of shutting it for good.

The center's license expired Feb. 21, but it has remained open as the appeals process unfolds — much to the dismay of immigration advocates who say conditions inside are inhumane and deplorable.

To illustrate, they're pointing to:

  • A potential shigellosis outbreak inside the facility. The infectious disease causes diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Evidence that cases of a fungus and diarrhea went untreated for weeks or months at a time
  • That there is no Spanish-speaking mental health professional despite the fact that the vast majority of residents are Spanish-speaking

"We think there is gross negligence and misconduct going on in the operation of this facility," said John D'Elia with Villanova University's Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic, which filed the petition Monday on behalf of the families.

The families' identities are not being made public. D'Elia said one family was detained at the center and released. The other is still being detained.

Human Services' Bureau of Hearings and Appeals will determine whether the families have standing to participate in the appeal. Erika Almrion, executive director of Juntos, said their stories are invaluable.

"As much as lawyers want to argue all of these legal reasons, or get stuck in the courts on an appeal process, there's no stronger story than a woman and a child who have been detained for months at a time and have been suffering through egregious human rights abuses," said Almiron.

The Berks County Commissioners office, which filed the appeal, has called removing the center's license "capricious." It argues that the state has repeatedly renewed its license knowing full well that families and children have been detained there.

In a statement, Khaalid Walls of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency "takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. The agency is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in our family residential centers have care and resources."

Walls said the center provides comprehensive medical care "from the moment the families arrive" and throughout their entire stay.

Walls also said that the center has staff members who speak fluent or conversational Spanish and 24-hour translation services.

A hearing date for the appeal has not been scheduled.

Roughly 40 women are currently being detained at the center. Most are from Central America.