In a change of heart, a Berks County commissioner moves to oust ICE

"There is a fear that the federal government is changing the immigration landscape in a negative way."

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — A Berks County commissioner has decided that after partnering with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain families for decades, it’s time for the county to end the relationship.

Kevin Barnhardt, a Democrat, had previously defended the Berks County Residential Center.

But he said Tuesday, he is now concerned about the direction of federal immigration policy.

The Berks center is one of just three ICE facilities in the country that house detained families. The county runs it via a contract with ICE, and gets around a million dollars in reimbursement annually.

The center has already had issues with the state.

In 2016, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s administration declined to renew its license, but a state judge ordered it reinstated, and the issue has been stuck in court since.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Hannah Hafter, left, Anjesus Marin and Marvin Hernandez, stand on a roadside near Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, to protest the detention of undocumented immigrants from Central America in a detention facility in Berks County.

Prior to Tuesday’s letter, Barnhardt had maintained conditions in the Berks detention facility were humane, and said families only spent a short time there while going through asylum proceedings.

But now, he says he doesn’t agree with President Donald Trump ramping up immigration raids, and doesn’t want the facility to be used as a jail.

“While the BCRC ensures a humane transition period for families regardless of their ultimate asylum riling, there is a fear that the federal government is changing the immigration landscape in a negative way,” he wrote. “I am not in support of the BCRC and its employees being associated with these extreme changes.”

So, he said, he advocates ending the relationship with ICE.

It’s unclear what steps Barnhardt can take to make that happen. His letter didn’t address whether he has the power to sever the contract, or whether his fellow commissioners–both Republicans–share his feelings.

He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

He noted in his letter, though, that he doesn’t think the facility can be used for drug treatment or a homeless shelter, as advocates of a shutdown have urged in the past.

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