Tears, chants as CASA celebrates end of ICE contract at York County Prison

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Tears. Joy. Vows that this was just the beginning.

Since coming to Pennsylvania in 2018, grassroots organization CASA has been advocating for York County to end its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detainees at its prison.

More:County official: After nearly 30 years, ICE ends contract with York prison

And with chants of "Sí se pudo" — "Yes we did" — members of the organization celebrated the news that ICE will no longer send detainees to York County Prison after Aug. 12.

"We are celebrating this first step of our victory," CASA Pennsylvania State Director Thaís Vazquez-Carrero said at a celebratory event held outside the prison Thursday night, hours after the news. "We have been working for many years. This has been a priority of ours for a long time. We had long documented the conditions that are happening inside the prison and in detention centers in general even before COVID and everything getting worse with the pandemic.

"We are truly grateful that this was able to come to fruition." 

ICE has contracted to hold detainees at York County Prison since the 1990s, when the freighter Golden Venture ran aground near New York Harbor. Local and federal officials had been trying to negotiate a new contract, but that effort ended last week.

"We could not come to an agreement that was mutually beneficial to both organizations, and it's really that simple," said Julie Wheeler, president of the York County Board of Commissioners. "Historically, we've had a great relationship with ICE ... but we could not come to an agreement that made sense for both parties." 

At Thursday's event, attended by 45 to 50 CASA members, members spoke of their experiences with detention in York County Prison. 

Cristina Rugerio, back center, surrounded by her children Anallely Rugerio Soto, 19, left, Alonzo Salinas Rugerio, 3, front, and Celeste Salinas Rugerio, 16, as she shares the story of her struggles during her husband's detainment and eventual deportation as CASA members react during a rally outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has ended its nearly 30 year contract with the prison, effective Aug. 12. Dawn J. Sagert photo

That included sisters Celeste Salinas Rugerio and Anallely Rugerio Soto, whose father was deported to Mexico after being detained in 2018.

"It's like some pain that we still have in our hearts is a little bit taken off," Soto said in an interview after the event. "It's not much, because it didn't happen at the time when our dad's still here. But just knowing other families won't have to go through that or any other individual, it's just a huge relief." 

Soto remembers the day her father, Cirano Salinas, was detained by ICE. After going to work one morning, the family knew something was wrong because he hadn't been in touch.

"On his first break he would text us, 'Hi, are you guys OK, are you out of bed?' He didn't do that. So the moment that happened, I felt that something was off," she said. 

After hearing a big knock on the door, the family knew something was wrong and hid at the other side of the house.

"We peeked through the window, and we saw a white SUV with dark windows, and we didn't want to open to that," Soto said.

After waiting an hour, they went to the door and saw Cirano's lunchbox.

"We got a call later that day from him, and he told us that they had detained him, and he told us to take care of ourselves and everything was going to be OK, whatever the outcome was that he loved us and to take care of each other," Soto said.

On Thursday, Soto said the family was going to contact Cirano that night and give him the news about the ICE contract ending.

Maleny Delgado spoke about her husband and her mother, who were both detained by ICE in York County Prison. Fighting back tears, she recalled her mother not being able to get feminine products on a regular basis.

"She told me that she was begging these people to give her some pads. The saddest thing is a female on her special day, you're asking them to give you something that you really need, and they don't care," she told the crowd. "Not even an animal deserves to be treated like that."

Maleny Delgado, of York City, talks about the detainment of her mother and her husband as CASA members react during a rally outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has ended its nearly 30 year contract with the prison, effective Aug. 12. Delgado spoke of poor provisions allowed for her mother while at the prison, including feminine products. Delgado worked to send her mother money so that she would have necessary products as well as better nutrition while in the prison. Her mother has since been deported. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Delgado remembers giving her mother money so she could buy food because what they gave her wasn't sufficient.

"I'm frankly thankful that this place is shutting down, and I hope that it stays shut down forever," she said.

Cresendo Antonio Chinchilla, who was detained at the prison for two years, said he only made it through his time there thanks to finding God through the Bible. He now suffers hypertension and struggles to work.

"I suffered abuse; I thought I was getting crazy. The only way I was able to survive those two years was I found the Bible, and I found religion. It was the only way I could survive being imprisoned here," he said, translated into English from Spanish by CASA lead organizer Laila Martin Garcia. "I may be breaking the law somehow, but the guards in here are breaking God's law. And that is something that they will have to deal with." 

Cresendo Antonio Chinchilla, of Hanover, shares his story of detainment as CASA members react during a rally outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has ended its nearly 30 year contract with the prison, effective Aug. 12. Chinchilla spend two years inside the prison and says the Bible and journaling helped him through it. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Before being detained, Chinchilla would work in the fields for 12 hours a day.

"This is not just harm that has been done to him, it is harm that has been done to our economy," Garcia said. "These are people that were working, people that had been bringing food to our tables that are not able to provide anymore. We are hurting our people, we are hurting our community and we are hurting our economy."

CASA made it clear that the end of York County's contract was only the first step. Next comes advocating for the other detention facilities in the state to end contracts with ICE and advocating to ensure that the current detainees are released instead of being transferred to other locations around the country. 

On Thursday, though, CASA celebrated the victory.

"I just hope more people can support our community and help us strive for bigger goals and not just shut down this facility, but all over the world and in this country and bring peace to families who have the same fears that we do and stop breaking families apart," Rugerio said. 

Other immigrant advocacy organizations echoed CASA.

"Though we are pleased that the County will no longer allow the facility to be used by ICE to incarcerate and separate families, we will call this a human rights victory for Pennsylvania only when families can be reunited and when we see an end to detention in our communities," a Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania statement said Friday.  "ICE must not begin transferring people from this facility. County, state and federal officials have a responsibility to ensure loved ones are not sent further away from their children, families and lawyers."  

Attorney Bridget Cambria, who serves as director of the Aldea-People's Justice Center in Reading, Berks County, said Thursday it was incredible to see the end of ICE detention at York County Prison. "It's just been around for a really long time, so I know that local advocates and attorneys will not be sad to see detention end there." 

Cambria said her organization will continue to provide services to those detained in other parts of the state. "It would be a travesty to see them detain immigrants that don't need to be detained in facilities and transfer them elsewhere," she said. "They should evaluate the detention of folks and err on the side of their release from custody." 

An ICE spokesperson confirmed that negotiations have ended with York County. "The health, welfare and safety of noncitizens in ICE custody will continue to be one of the agency’s highest priorities."