Gov. Wolf and a Berks County official are plotting ways to close an immigrant detention center

Berks County Residential Center, July 19, 2019. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Berks County Residential Center, July 19, 2019. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Governor Tom Wolf’s office has confirmed that for nearly five months, he and other administration officials have been quietly negotiating a potential way to stop holding undocumented immigrants at the controversial Berks Family Residential Center.

The talks began in July after Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt announced he no longer supported maintaining the detention center — citing concern that President Donald Trump’s administration is “changing the immigration landscape in a negative way.”

The Berks Center is one of just three detention facilities in the country that holds undocumented families. It’s the oldest, the smallest and the only one not located in Texas.

Berks County has run the center through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2001, and is reimbursed by ICE for its work.

County officials have long defended the center as an important local employer. When Governor Wolf attempted to rescind the center’s state childcare license in 2016, Berks officials sued to keep it. The issue has been tied up in administrative court since.

Barnhardt shared a few anecdotes from his talks with the Wolf administration at a recent forum with constituents. He said two of his main concerns are making sure that none of the 60 county employees at the Berks Family Residential Center are left jobless, and that the county doesn’t lose money.

“I don’t want to continue the program,” he said. “But I also realize there has to be a plan in place before we terminate our contract.”

He said so far, the administration has floated three options.

One would involve converting the center into a mental health facility for people who are convicted of crimes but are too sick to be housed in regular prisons. Barnhardt explained that the state would use the hypothetical new facility as a sixteen-bed “step-down” for people transferring out of two secure state mental hospitals, Norristown and Torrance.

According to Barnhardt, the state also proposed using the space as an “adolescent facility for children with substance use disorder and mental health issues,” and as a place for the Department of Agriculture to develop agricultural improvement technology.

Barnhardt told constituents he isn’t satisfied with those proposals because the state doesn’t seem inclined to offer enough money to entice the county to give up its ICE contract.

“Why should the county have to bear the cost?” he asked. “Discussions are ongoing…the door is open to the governor.”

It is unclear how much sway Barnhardt has over the county’s decisions concerning the Berks Center. Of the three commissioners currently in office, he is the only Democrat—though November’s election could shift the balance.

Barnhardt and the other two commissioners did not return requests for comment.

JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, confirmed the talks with Barnhardt were happening.

“When Commissioner Barnhardt changed his position…the administration saw an opportunity to repurpose the facility to help the people of Berks County, and close the ICE facility, which the governor supports,” he wrote in an email.

He declined to offer any more details about the state’s proposals.

“[Wolf] will continue to work with them to explore all possible options, but this is a choice for the county to make,” Abbott wrote. “Thus far, they have seemed more concerned with generating the revenue from detaining families seeking a better way of life.”

For several years, immigration advocates have regularly protested the continued detention of undocumented families at the Berks Center.

One of the more active groups, the Shut Down Berks Coalition, is pushing for Wolf to issue an Emergency Removal Order, which he has the power to do if he finds evidence that a facility in Pennsylvania presents a clear and immediate danger to people in its custody.

Wolf has maintained conditions at Berks don’t meet the legal definition of immediate danger.

Sundrop Carter, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and a member of Shut Down Berks, said while she is encouraged that Wolf is negotiating with Berks County, she’s concerned it will take too long.

“The Governor should issue an ERO to ensure families are not being detained during that operational change,” she said.

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