Leaders of the Shut Down Berks Coalition think they can sway Michael Rivera to their side.
Despite the newest Berks County commissioner having previously publicly stated his opposition to closing the Berks County Residential Center — the Bern Township facility that houses undocumented immigrants seeking asylum from their nations of origin — the group thinks he can be persuaded to change his mind. That was the reason they decided to stop by his home Monday night, June 29.
Four members of the organization arrived at Rivera's Bern Township residence around 9 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 have been making demands to speak with Rivera about this since he was on the campaign trail," said Shut Down Berks Campaign organizer Troy Turner. "Nothing has worked and now we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic. So showing up to his house was almost like an act of desperation."
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. He referenced a lawsuit that argues the communal housing arrangement, limited cleaning supplies and the influx of new families makes detention centers like the one in Bern Township a potential hub for coronavirus infection.
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.
Rivera said Tuesday, June 30, that he was disappointed by the tactic, which he found inappropriate and disconcerting instead of persuasive.
"I understand the passion they have for this issue," the Republican said. "But they went about it the wrong way. I told them I would be happy to sit down in my office and discuss this some other time. Even though I'm a public servant I think my privacy when I'm at home with my family deserves to be respected."
Rivera said he was home with his wife and daughter when they noticed bright lights shining into their house. He went outside and saw a group of people he didn't recognize gathered in the street, so he went back inside and called police.
Police arrived about five minutes later, and Rivera went back outside. While officers stood by, Rivera spent about 15 minutes talking with what he discovered were protesters.
"I told them that showing up to my home was actually going to hurt their cause because what they did was just not acceptable," he said. "There are many different ways that people can communicate with us and that should have been the route they went."
Turner said showing up at Rivera's home was not the preferred choice of coalition members, but they felt they had no other option to get their point across. And turning Rivera is the key piece to getting what they want.
The commissioners are split on the issue. Republican Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach has long supported continuing the contract, while Democratic Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt has reached out to state officials about how to put the facility to a new use.
Turner said coalition members felt that they could persuade Rivera to join their side, citing that he has shown up to several Black Lives Matter events in several weeks and expressed sympathy for those seeking asylum in the past. And, most importantly, like many of those detained at the facility he is Latino.
Rivera has said that, as the first Latino commissioner, he hopes to bring attention to the needs and concerns of those in the Latino community.
"I was really disappointed that he lacks the political courage to do something before babies start to die," Turner said. "These are the demands of the community he claims to represent, so it's just a matter of aligning your actions with your words. I have faith that he can do that. I just think he needs some pressure to build that urgency."
Rivera said there are higher priorities to tackle right now. He said dealing with the widespread impact of the coronavirus is his main concern.
"I was elected to represent the county as a whole," he said. "In my position, I want to do what I can do to help minorities the best I can. Are there other issues that are above my pay grade in relation to immigration as a whole? Yes, definitely. But that's not something that I have any authority over."
He also pushed back on claims that residents at the facility were being put at risk. He said those housed there are receiving appropriate care and being tested for COVID-19, including as recently as last week.
The protest on June 29 comes on the heels of a federal judge's recent ruling that activists hope will lead to the shutdown of the facility.
U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled late Friday, June 26, that children held for more than 20 days in one of three family detention centers, including Berks, must be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors by July 17.
Gee cited the recent spread of COVID-19 in two detention centers in Texas as the reason for the order.