For years, attorney Bridget Cambria has fought for immigrants held at the Berks County detention center, suing the federal government dozens of times to try to stop asylum-seekers from being deported.
Everybody in local immigration circles knows that.
What many don’t know is she once worked at Berks. As a guard.
As friends tell it, that job experience in her early 20s propelled Cambria toward two life-altering decisions: One, appalled by the treatment of immigrant families, she would go to law school after graduating from college. And two, she would use her law degree to tear the place down — legally, not literally.
Cambria, 42, says that’s not completely accurate, but there’s no question that her motivation for becoming a lawyer was to advocate for the mothers, fathers, and children imprisoned at Berks.
Now the center is scheduled to close Jan. 31, ending a long and controversial chapter in immigrant detention in Pennsylvania.
“I feel lighter,” Cambria said in an interview. “I feel like something righteous happened.”
Her clients stood among the most vulnerable in the federal immigration system, the people who had children, or were children, who had little money, no connections, and, as undocumented migrants, few legal rights. People for whom being sent back to their homelands could be a death sentence.
“We were successful sometimes, not in other times,” Cambria said, “but that didn’t mean you did not fight.”
Groups like the Shut Down Berks Coalition condemned Berks as a “baby jail,” and Amnesty International called it inhumane. Advocate groups plan a victory celebration after the closing.
The 96-bed lockup is known for having been one of only three facilities in the country that confined immigrant families — mothers, fathers, and children together. That role ended when Berks closed in early 2021, but it reopened in 2022 as a detention center for immigrant women.
It sits 66 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Leesport, run by the county through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE officials say they’re letting the contract expire because tax dollars can be better spent on facilities that offer greater performance, efficiency, and economy of scale. These days more migrants are being held at the Moshannon Valley Processing Center, a 1,876-bed private prison in Clearfield County.
The last Berks detainee was released Jan. 10.
“The biggest lesson I learned from Bridget was don’t give up,” said Karen Hoffman, an immigration attorney with the Ellenberg Law Group in Philadelphia, who worked for Cambria as an advocate for Berks families after graduating from law school in 2016. “Even when you are up against powerful forces and seemingly insurmountable odds, you can still win.”
Immigrants were sent to Berks from across the United States, no matter where they may have entered the country or how they got here — by boat, plane, or foot. Nearly all were seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States for those who face persecution in their homelands.
ICE says it confines foreign nationals to be sure they attend their immigration hearings and so that, if necessary, they can be readily deported. Some migrants are subject to mandatory detention under the law, and others have been deemed public-safety or flight risks by the agency. Cambria and other advocates argue that detention is unnecessary and punitive, that migrants can be released to family members and would still show up for court hearings.
In 2017, Cambria won freedom for a 3-year-old Honduran boy, Diego Rivera-Osorio, who had been jailed with his mother for two years. Cambria bought him a tiny Brooks Brothers suit to go before the judge. In 2020, she achieved the release of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl and her father, enabling the two to reunite with the child’s mother and baby brother in New Jersey.
“She felt compassion to help children like me,” said Makaya Revell, who fled deadly political violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo at 16, then spent a year confined at Berks. “So many people have been taken off the abyss, off of suffering, because of Bridget.”
Revell, 36, now runs a York-based conflict-resolution company, Peace Promise Consulting, and holds a master’s degree from American University in Washington.
But in 2002 he was a teenager running for his life. His father and brother had been targeted and killed. A boat took him to New Orleans. And from there, U.S. immigration authorities took him to Berks.
Years later, long after he had been transferred to a foster home, and then to another, and then aged out of the youth system, he received an official letter from the U.S. government.
It told him to leave the country, to self-deport.
Only then did Revell learn that he had lost his asylum case and been ordered removed not long after he arrived. He knew people in his homeland would be waiting to kill him.
In 2017, after a string of unsuccessful filings from a series of lawyers, he found his way to Aldea – The People’s Justice Center in Reading.
Cambria and attorney Jackie Kline cofounded the center a year earlier, after two years of doing immigration cases around Berks. The center sought to provide free or low-cost legal representation to immigrants.
Cambria met him at the door.
“I know you,” she said.
“Oh my god, it’s you!” Revell replied.
It turned out they had met 15 years before at Berks, when he was detained and she was a guard. Revell remembered Cambria’s care for the families — and her parting promise to return to help them.
She took his case. Last year, 20 years after he came to this country, Revell was granted asylum, and with it the right to eventually seek U.S. citizenship.
Cambria was a student at Albright College in Reading, where she grew up, when Berks opened in 2001. She was studying criminal justice and looking for a job. Berks hired her immediately, as a “shelter care counselor.” She was disappointed to be assigned to the center’s immigration wing.
“In fact,” she said, “it directed my whole life going forward.”
One boy, about 15, from El Salvador, told Cambria about the violence he experienced on the streets. She tried to get him to call his family.
“Who am I going to call?” he asked her. “My mom doesn’t have a phone.”
Another time, Cambria helped plan a birthday party for a Jamaican girl, arriving at work excited — only to find the girl was gone. She had turned 18, and on her birthday authorities transferred her to an adult facility.
That was the hardest part, Cambria said. Children disappeared without warning, and she never knew what happened to them.
After about a year it was time for her to go, too. She graduated from Roger Williams University Law School in Rhode Island in 2006.
What’s next for Cambria? Now that the jail that dominated her waking and working hours will be gone?
“Now I concentrate on building our community,” she said. “If you walk in here and you have a case, you’re going to get a lawyer. We don’t turn people away.”