Wolf administration: Only Washington can shut down Berks County immigrant detention center

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

This PennLive article appeared on PA Post.

Responding to calls from activists and protesters to shut down a Berks County immigrant detention center, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Tuesday reiterated the explanation that the state does not have oversight over the facility.

In an email to PennLive, Department of Human Services press secretary Erin James noted that Wolf has attempted to revoke the license from the Berks County Residential Center, but regardless of any action on the part of the state, the federal government continues to operate the facility because the center is run by Berks County in a direct contract with the federal government.

“Governor Wolf urges the Trump Administration to shut this center down, and, as he has repeatedly, the governor requests that the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security consider community-based options to serve these families while they await immigration proceedings,” James said in the email.

As they have over recent years, protesters on Tuesday once again called on the governor to shut down the detention center amid the growing national outrage over inhumane conditions at border detention centers. More than 150 “Close the Camps” protests were scheduled to be held across the country in the wake of heinous reports of inhumane conditions at detention centers, with reports of children and women being denied basic care, hygiene, medical care and humane treatment.

Protesters are calling for the Berks County facility to be turned into an opioid addiction treatment center. The center detains about 90 immigrant women and children.

“That’s what’s essential. That’s what is needed in this country,” said Anna Drallios, one of the organizers of the Harrisburg protest. “Not prison for people seeking asylum legally.”

The Berks County facility is leased by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The state Department of Human Services cannot issue an Emergency Removal Order unless it finds misconduct that causes immediate and serious danger to the life or health of the children in the facility, James explained.

“DHS conducts regular unannounced inspections and has not found grounds for an ERO,” she explained. “Further, Berks County and the federal government have said that they would continue to operate the facility even without a state license. Because the facility operates under a contract with the federal government, and the residents are in the custody of the federal government, the commonwealth has no authority to unilaterally move them to another location. If the commonwealth did issue an ERO, the families would likely remain in detention unless ICE and the courts agree that they can be moved.”

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale plans to review the center’s treatment of detainees.

DePasquale has cited reports over the last several years of former detainees describing inadequate health care, sexual abuse, and other health and human rights violations inside the center.

Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach says detainees are well taken care of, according to a report by WFMZ-TV in Allentown.

“We have 20 plus staff on that facility, the Berks County Intermediate Unit provides high tech classroom,” Leinbach told the media outlet in June.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday paved the way for a trial on a lawsuit by a female immigrant who claims she was sexually assaulted at the facility.

The decision from a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit comes more than two years after the Berks County Residential Center employee accused of forcing the woman to have sex with him was sentenced to prison.

The woman, then 19, fled Honduras for the U.S. in 2014 to escape sexual assault and domestic violence. She was originally detained in Texas before being transferred to the Berks center.

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