Lawmakers call for better treatment of asylum-seekers at Berks County Residential Center

Immigration rights activists have filed a lawsuit against the Berks County commissioners, claiming they are keeping plans for the future of the Berks County Residential Center secret.

The lawsuit, filed by the Sheller Center for Social Justice of Temple University Law School on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and a group of Berks residents, takes issue with what the plaintiffs see as a lack of transparency.

It centers around a decision by the county commissioners at a Feb. 25 meeting to send a letter of support to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding a white paper proposal for the Bern Township center without providing the public with information on what that proposal was or sharing a copy of the letter of support.

Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt opposed the motion without comment. There was no discussion about what was contained in the letter or the ICE proposal.

A right-to-know request for the documents filed by the Reading Eagle was denied by the county. The newspaper has appealed that denial to the state's Office of Open Records and expects a decision by May 5.

The Eagle has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with ICE but has not yet received a response.

The activists' lawsuit, which was filed last Friday in Berks County Court, claims the commissioners' actions represent a deliberate effort to hide the plans for the facility from the public.

"The commissioners provided no information about the letter or proposal to the public, prevented the public from having a reasonable opportunity to comment and engaged in private deliberations," the Shut Down Berks Coalition said Tuesday in a statement about the lawsuit.

"Berks residents believe it is completely undemocratic that the commissioners refuse transparency and accountability with their constituents as to the content of their letter of support to ICE's white paper proposal," according to the statement.

The statement was sent to media outlets shortly before a virtual press conference was held Tuesday morning announcing the lawsuit.

The statement said the refusal by the county to share these plans with the public is a violation of the Sunshine Act — a state law that says every portion of every meeting of an agency shall be open to public observation.

"The Sunshine Act condemns precisely this kind of secrecy because it undermines the faith of the public in government," the statement said.

County Solicitor Christine Sadler previously said the county doesn't have permission from ICE to share with the public the proposal or the letter that was signed by the majority of the commissioners.

She added that as soon as the federal government indicates to the county that they can share this information it will do so.

County spokeswoman Stephanie M. Weaver said Tuesday that the county does not comment on pending litigation.

The center is one of three facilities in the nation where ICE has detained families with children seeking asylum.

Berks manages the center and is reimbursed by the federal government. In return, ICE leases office space and provides about $1 million in revenue annually to the county.

For years immigration advocates have fought for its closure. They contend the detainment of children is inhumane and made accusations about mistreatment of detainees and poor living conditions in the center. Federal and county officials have consistently denied those claims.

Although the center was emptied last month, the organizations that had been fighting for the release of the families detained there warned the battle to permanently shut down the center is not over.

Based on documents filed this month in federal court, it now appears the center will be transformed into a detention center for adults.

Members of the coalition said they find no comfort in the fact that only adults will be housed at the center in the future. Instead, they have proposed the center be repurposed to house programming that will benefit the lives of those in the community.

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