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Center for Illegal Alien Families Opens

Associated Press Writer

LEESPORT, Pa. (AP) -- The nation's first detention center for illegal-immigrant families seeking asylum in the United States has opened in what used to be a nursing home.

The dormitory-style Family Shelter Care center, which opened last week in central Pennsylvania about 55 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It is now home to 10 Colombian families.

The center -- set aside only for immigrants who have not been charged with crimes and their children -- represents a break from the agency's use of hotel rooms to house immigrant families while their claims for asylum are processed. (Adults who arrive illegally in the United States without children are usually held in federal detention centers or county jails.)

The immigrants and their children are closely supervised and are not allowed to leave without an escort, but there are no bars on the windows and the staff is not armed. INS provides medical and dental care and three meals a day, and parents can attend English classes.

''It allows parents to remain with minor children in a safe and stable environment,'' Charles Zemski, acting regional director for INS in Philadelphia, said Thursday.

Officials did not allow interviews of any of the 32 immigrants, all of whom entered the country in Miami.

The center is in the same building as another INS center housing about 30 immigrant youths who are in the United States without legal guardians. Children from both centers attend classes together during the day.

The average stay is expected to be three to six weeks at a cost to the government of about $200 per day. INS officials said that is significantly cheaper than housing them in hotels in Newark, N.J., New York City, or Miami, where most illegal immigrants enter the country.

While some praised the center for keeping families together and offering them social services, immigrant advocate Kathleen Lucas said the shelter is ''just a very fancy jail with a pretty name.''

''Anything that puts people in detention and keeps them locked up when they haven't committed a crime is a step in the wrong direction,'' said Lucas, founder of the Coalition for Immigrants' Rights at the Community Level.

She said asylum-seekers should be permitted to work and pay taxes while their claims are processed, instead of being detained and supported at taxpayer expense.

The INS said it plans to open several more shelters in the Southwest and in the Chicago area in the next few years.

''The overall goal here is the safe, secure and humane treatment of detainees,'' said Anthony Tangeman, an INS deputy commissioner in Washington.

AP-NY-03-15-01 1804EST<


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