Friday July 13, 2018
They said the county cannot change federal immigration laws.
WRITTEN BY KAREN SHUEY
The Berks County commissioners said that they want to set the record straight on the Berks County Residential Center.
The board took the opportunity at its weekly meeting Thursday to address comments and criticism they have received from the public since asylum for immigrants has become a hot-button topic across the United States.
Ignited by the Trump administration's decision to separate families who crossed into the United States seeking asylum and the subsequent decision to end the practice, the issue has become a flashpoint in the national immigration debate.
The matter hits home in Berks County, one of three locations in the United States that hosts a family residential center that detains people seeking asylum, or after being denied, await deportation.
The center along County Welfare Road in Bern Township is managed and paid for by the county, which is reimbursed by the federal government.
In return, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays to lease office space and provides about $1.1 million in revenue annually to Berks.
Over the past several years the center has been the focus of protests and vigils, with claims of mistreatment and demands to close it. Opposition groups are planning another rally at the facility on Sunday.
All three Berks commissioners said Thursday that they have been fielding calls and answering emails from citizens requesting the release of the 24 men and 24 children currently held at the center.
“I'm really getting tired of all of this attention on the Berks center,” said Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, a Democrat. “I know there are some horrific conditions in other facilities in other states — and I'm not here to talk about that.
“If you have a problem with the law, then you need to take it up with your federal lawmakers. This is not something the county or the state can change.”
Barnhardt said that he was especially bothered by reports made by one Pennsylvania lawmaker who toured the facility.
He said he helped organize a July 2 tour at the request of state Sen. Judy Schwank of Ruscombmanor Township, state Rep. Peter G. Schweyer of Allentown and Berks County Recorder of Deeds Frederick C. Sheeler, all fellow Democrats.
But on the day of the scheduled tour, state Rep. Christopher M. Rabb of Philadelphia showed up unannounced with Pat Uribe-Lichty, a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition.
“And I got to tell you something — I'm done with helping to organize these tours,” he said. “This is not the Philadelphia Zoo, this is not the Franklin Institute. These people have lives and they have structure to those lives.”
Barnhardt said that Rabb and Uribe-Lichty asked questions about how the center is run, such as what percentage of the staff speaks Spanish and why the staff performs bed checks every 15 minutes, as part of an effort to make the facility look bad.
The answers to those questions are nuanced, Barnhardt said.
He said state regulations for the center call for nightly bed checks and that the county has asked the Department of Human Services for permission to conduct the checks every 30 minutes instead but never received a response.
He also reported that about 40 percent of the employees at the center speak Spanish, but it would make little difference if they all did since most of the families detained at the facility now speak indigenous languages specific to their home regions.
At the time of that tour, Rabb told the Reading Eagle that he was disturbed by the center and the policy of family detention.
“I saw a detention center listed as a residence center. I saw detainees; I didn't see residents. I saw fathers with their children in a well-manicured center run by Berks County and leased to ICE,” the Democrat said. “I have some deep concerns, largely around the business model of modern immigration and why people are here in the first place.”
Barnhardt maintained that the county employees who work at the facility provide an excellent service to the federal government.
“The center was inspected by the state 49 times in 2017, so this place is thoroughly vetted,” he said.
Commissioners Mark C. Scott and Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach, both Republicans, agreed with the comments made by their colleague.
Scott said that it was sad that people were being manipulated into their “orchestrated outrage” about the issue.
Leinbach said that the stories he sees in the newspapers and the emails the commissioners receive misrepresent the facts.
“It is extremely frustrating to see this kind of stuff happen again and again,” he said. “And, in part, this is occurring because of a political agenda.”
He also wanted to address recent reports that the county abruptly rebuffed a donation of 100 Spanish-language children's books from a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization.
Leinbach said the county declined the donation because the center has an extensive Spanish-language library.
It did, however, ask the organization if it had any children's books in the indigenous languages spoken by residents at the facility.
“It became clear to us that this wasn't about their care for the children, this was a political stunt,” he said.
Commissioners respond to complaints about Berks Residential Center