A 9-year-old girl, identified as Yeslin, breaks down in tears after telling a hushed crowd of supporters how she and her family feel about their incarceration at the Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

The latest battleground in the raging national war over illegal immigration is a quiet, red-brick compound in central Pennsylvania, surrounded by woods, fields and a playground with swings and jungle gyms.

Inside are 96 women and children who fled violence-plagued Central America last year and crossed into the United States without permission. They are being held by U.S. immigration authorities while fighting to win asylum, at a time when illegal immigration has inflamed the presidential race and President Obama’s attempt to shield millions from deportation is stuck in the nation’s highest court.

To immigrant advocates, the Berks Family Residential Facility is a prison where children and their parents are being unjustly confined. They have pressed for months to have it shut down, and celebrated last month when the state of Pennsylvania decided to revoke its license.

To federal immigration officials, who have appealed the state’s order, the unfenced center is both a protective environment for families and a showcase of U.S. determination to curb illegal border crossings. By keeping the families in custody, officials hope to set an example and prevent a recurrence of the 2014 border crisis, during which tens of thousands of Central American minors and families surged into the United States.

“This has been an awkward dilemma for the government,” said Muzaffar Chishti, an official at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in New York. “Family detention is a delicate issue, and the interplay between trying to balance immigration policy goals, social services for kids and the law has made a controversial and potent mixture.”

Detainees at the the Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., exchange cheers with protesting supporters across the street. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Detention as a deterrent

The fight over how to handle the border flow has dragged on for two years, with lawsuits and court rulings, executive actions and congressional pushback.

In January, armed agents in Georgia, North Carolina and several other states swept up 121 mothers and children who were awaiting deportation, arousing a furor among Democrats in Congress and liberal advocacy groups.

Now, the spotlight has shifted to Berks, one of three U.S. facilities where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency holds illegal immigrant families. The other two are larger compounds in Texas, originally built as military barracks or security training camps.

Rights groups have filed complaints of poor medical services, intrusive security and other problems. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of 29 detained families, saying that they were denied an adequate chance to prove that they deserve permanent asylum from violence in their homelands.

Ultimately, the state revoked the facility’s license on a technicality, finding that it had been originally built to house children but not adults. Advocates argue that newly arrived children suffer special hardship in detention and cannot legally be kept there either, based on a 1997 court ruling that was reaffirmed last summer.

“The government is only keeping these families here to send a message and deter others from coming,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a lawyer for many Berks families. “No child should be in detention, and every one of these families has relatives waiting to receive them.”

Immigration attorney Carol Anne Donohoe stands with protesters outside of the Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, said they could not comment on specific disputes involving Berks.

But they defended the practice of detaining and deporting most Central American families who are caught soon after entering the United States, calling it part of a strategy adopted in 2014 after a wave of 60,000 unaccompanied children and 26,000 families reached the border. Officials say they will keep up the pressure, carrying out the raids in January and announcing plans to open refu­gee processing centers in Central America.

“We cannot send a message that once families with kids cross the border, they are here to stay,” a senior DHS official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of department policy. “If many end up staying here indefinitely, the concern is that it will encourage further illegal immigration.”

The fate of the families at Berks could hinge on a legal fight over whether special rights granted to children who reach the United States alone should also apply to a parent who comes with them.

In 2000, a law to protect smuggling victims required that many unaccompanied, undocumented minors be given shelter and a chance to seek permanent refuge. In 1997, a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit that such children may be detained only briefly and in the least-restrictive conditions.

The recent border surge, which included numerous family groups, created a legal and ethical quandary over where to keep those immigrants and what laws to apply.

Advocacy groups decried the harsh conditions of family detention centers near the border, and a federal judge ruled that the law limiting detention for illegal minors should also apply to their accompanying parents. The government appealed, and the case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.

‘I am not a criminal’

An unusual spectacle unfolded outside Berks one recent morning. About 100 people gathered on the driveway, including church volunteers, lawyers, Latino activists and at least one relative of a family being held at the facility. The crowd chanted “Libertad, libertad!” and raised posters demanding that everyone inside be released.

About 20 feet away, 96 Central American women and children stood under a tree, facing the visitors. Some of the children wore signs with the number of months they had been detained.

A few uniformed police officers kept the two groups apart, but they called out to each other with increasing boldness.

“I am not a criminal. I don’t want to be locked up here anymore,” a 9-year-old girl shouted in Spanish.

“We are with you,” a protester shouted back. “You will be free soon.”

Several days later, a Washington Post reporter returned to Berks to meet with two of the mothers, a rare visit permitted by ICE. The rooms were clean and bright, with bunk beds and piles of toys. A staff member remained within earshot during the visit.

The mothers, both from El Salvador, said their children were taking classes in math and English and had access to computers. But they also said months of confinement had taken an emotional toll. They were desperate to leave Berks and stay with relatives while waiting for their asylum claims to be reviewed.

“My son is sad, and sometimes he cries at night,” said one woman, 29, whose attorneys asked that she be identified only as Sarai. “He keeps asking me why we are here, and I have no answer for him.”

Immigration officers at Berks have been advising mothers that there is one easy escape route available. Each time one requests medical help, saying she or her children are suffering from stress or sickness, she receives a reply suggesting that she ask her attorney to withdraw the motion to suspend the family’s deportation.

In that case, the reply says, “arrangements can be made for your removal from the United States.”