The Shut Down Berks Coalition wants Kevin S. Barnhardt to take action.
Despite Barnhardt announcing last summer that he now opposes the continuation of the arrangement between the county and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to manage the Berks County Residential Center — the Bern Township facility that houses undocumented immigrants seeking asylum from their nations of origin — the group thinks he should be doing more to make that happen.
Members of the organization took that message directly to the commissioner at his South Heidelberg Township residence on Wednesday night, July 1, and it was not well received.
The group arrived around 10 p.m. and projected messages from those detained at the facility onto his house. The words were taken from sworn statements the detainees made as part of a lawsuit that alleges the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has failed to take emergency action to protect those housed at the facility from infection.
"We hear him saying one thing and then doing another thing," Shut Down Berks Campaign organizer Troy Turner said of Barnhardt. "He's been doing a lot of things we've been asking him to do but there's an even stronger sense of urgency right now to close the center because of the pandemic. And instead he's been telling us he'll revisit the issue once the dust settles. But the time for action is now."
The county manages and pays for the operation and is reimbursed by the federal government.
In return, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays to lease office space and provides about $1 million in revenue annually to the county. The center can hold a maximum of 96 people, however, recent reports indicate there are only four families currently detained at the facility.
While there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those housed at the Berks facility, Turner said it's only a matter of time before that changes.
It was the second time this week the group had directed protests at commissioners.
On Monday night, June 29, they visited the home of Republican Commissioner Michael Rivera in an effort to persuade him to drop his opposition to closing the facility. But the protest failed to deliver the outcome the organization was hoping.
Rivera said Tuesday, June 30, that he was disappointed by the tactic, which he found inappropriate and disconcerting instead of persuasive.
Barnhardt said he felt the same way.
"It was totally ineffective because I was asleep in bed until an officer knocked on our door," he said, noting that an annoyed neighbor called the police. "I think their tactics are deplorable. Challenge me at a meeting, challenge me on Facebook, challenge me on the phone. But coming to my house — I think that's awful."
The South Heidelberg Township Democrat revealed last fall that he has been working with representatives from Gov. Tom Wolf's administration to try to find a better use for the building and for the 60 people who work there.
He said the initial ideas from the governor included transforming the building into a facility to help both those leaving Norristown State Hospital transition back into the community and adolescents suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues. Barnhardt said earlier month during a commissioners meeting that those discussions have not yet produced a viable alternative.
"I thought the coalition felt they had an ally in me so I don't know what their intention was," he said. "I have insisted on a plan with the state."
If the governor is that adamant that he doesn't want the center here then he needs to work with Berks County to see that happen. And until that happens, the county isn't going to lay off the people who work there and take that hit financially."
Turner said the coalition wants to see Barnhardt work harder with the Wolf administration to find a solution.
"We want to support him in aligning his actions with his words because, right now, they're not in sync," he said. "We have faith that he can do more."