Pennsylvania auditor general urges feds to stop using Berks facility to house immigrants

The federal government should stop holding immigrating and asylum-seeking families at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale urged during a news conference.

Berks County owns the 96-bed facility in Bern Township, about 8 miles from Reading, and leases it to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The center is one of three such facilities in the country and the only one owned by a government entity. The federal government reimburses Berks County roughly $1.3 million annually to operate the facility, which has a staff of 59 county employees.

“Seeking asylum is not against the law,” DePasquale said during a news conference.

“No one being held at Berks is facing any criminal charges,” DePasquale, a Democrat, added. “Let me say that again. No one being held at the Berks facility is facing any criminal charges, but the center still essentially functions as a jail in which adults and children, sometimes mere babies, are detained.”

As of October 2019, the center housed about 22 families seeking asylum from Mexico, Haiti and other Central American nations, according to a report DePasquale released. In 2018, roughly 20 families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras passed through the facility, according to the report.

The center, which opened in 2001, costs taxpayers nearly $12 million per year to operate, DePasquale said.

In 2016, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) revoked the center’s license as a child residential facility, but litigation involving the decision remains ongoing. State officials perform monthly inspections and have not found any violations of state regulations since June 2018.

DePasquale, who is running for Congress, said federal officials have denied his request to tour the facility. He also alleged some former detainees have expressed concerns about conditions inside the center.

DePasquale also alleged the center appears to routinely violate the Flores Agreement, a 1997 federal legal settlement that says immigrant children may not be detained for more than 20 days. In 2016, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General found most families being held in the Berks center had been there for more than six months.

As of Dec. 9, a six-year-old girl had been at the Berks facility with her father for 167 days, while a 17-year-old girl had been detained there for 153 days, according to DePasquale’s report.

“We are well past the time to close the Berks center,” DePasquale said. “… This is not in the best interests of Pennsylvania or the United States having this facility open.”

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