Berks County to detain asylum-seeking immigrant women for feds

County solicitor Christine Sadler, Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach and Commissioner Michael Rivera at Thursday's meeting

County solicitor Christine Sadler, Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach and Commissioner Michael Rivera at Thursday's meeting. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

This story originally appeared on WITF.

The Berks County Residential Center, which once held detained families for federal immigration authorities, now will house only female asylum seekers.

Berks County Commissioners voted Thursday to change the county’s long-standing contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Commissioners Michael Rivera and Chair Christian Leinbach voted to amend the county’s agreement with ICE for use of the center, also known as the Berks Family Residential Center.

Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, the board’s lone Democrat, was absent from the meeting. He has said he opposed using the center to detain women migrants.

The county does not have a timeline for when it will begin receiving women seeking asylum in the United States, according to county spokesperson Stephanie Weaver.

All speakers and messages in the public comment section of the meeting were in opposition to the change, and the detention of immigrants in general. The Shut Down Berks Coalition, a group of civic organizations dedicated to the closure of the center, protested outside the Berks County Services Building during the meeting.

The proposed change was met with vocal opposition from community members and immigrant advocacy groups.

After Leinbach and Rivera voted for the change, some in attendance aired their disappointment, noting that no one from the public came to support it.

“Not a single comment in favor!” one man yelled.

Leinabach retorted by saying Berks voters knew he has long supported the center.

“Be seated or leave. … You brought it up, this was an issue in the 2019 campaign. The people of Berks County spoke pretty clearly on this issue,” Leinbach said. “That’s all I’ll say on that.”

The man answered before leaving the meeting.

“They are speaking clearly now, are you listening?” he said.

Leinbach and Rivera defended the center and its workers.

Rivera said the center would have been ordered to be closed if claims made by people who oppose the center were true.

“As Commissioner Leinbach said, had there been any address issues that were not addressed, they would have shut it down a while ago and that has not been the case,” Rivera said.

The new agreement shaves the revenue the county makes from the center from $1,088,100 to $1,033,000, according to county chief financial officer Robert Patrizio.

Immigration lawyer Bridget Cambria was among those who voiced their opposition to the change, saying she is concerned about how women will be treated in the center.

“By transitioning to detaining women, you’re taking a bigger risk,” said the cofounder of ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center, which offers free legal services to immigrant families. “With families and children there is oversight, there’s protection.”

“Women in detention are a particularly vulnerable population, you’re taking a huge risk,” she added.

The T. Don Hutto center in Texas transitioned from a family detention center to a women-only center in 2009. Multiple women there reported sexual abuses in 2010.

In December, more than 40 women alleged in federal court that they were abused by a gynecologist in Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.

Others who spoke during the meeting pointed to the 2014 case of an employee at the center who was convicted of institutional sexual assault of a mother detained there with her child.

The Berks center was one of only three family detention centers in the country.

Around 10 families were released by federal authorities as ICE re-evaluated its detention priorities. The nation’s two other family detention centers in Texas remained operational while the future of Berks’ detention center remained vague.

The secrecy surrounding plans for the center drew criticism from the community earlier this summer, prompting Leinbach to share some details, saying he and Rivera supported continuing the family detention program or taking only women.

He said they did not support the option of taking only male migrants.

A document from ICE officials showed the proposal presented to the commissioners was titled “White Paper Proposal for Additional Bed Space at the BCRC.”

County Solicitor Christine M. Sadler said current discussions with ICE have the maximum of detainees projected at 100. When the center detained families, it had a maximum capacity of 96.

A group of 50 elected officials from around the state, led by State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr. of Reading, delivered a letter to President Joe Biden in recent weeks. It called for the federal government to end its contract with Berks to detain immigrants.

On an online protest, Guzman said he will help the commissioners’ opponents get elected if they went through with the change.

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