Anthony Orozco is the Latino communities reporter for WITF. Anthony joined PA Post in May 2020 as a Report For America corps member and transitioned to WITF in August 2020. He has worked in central Pennsylvania as a journalist, poet and community organizer since graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Cincinnati in 2012.
This story was updated on May 5 to include information about the release of the county’s letter of support for a planned new use for the detention center.
(Reading) — The federal government has proposed more bed space in the Berks Family Residential Center — a detail missing from one commissioner’s public statement last week about the center’s future.
Berks County Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach said the proposal’s “bottom line” was the county’s willingness to continue detaining families or just women migrants. But he didn’t mention the proposal for more beds, and the possibility of more detainees.
ICE’s proposal is titled “White Paper Proposal for Additional Bed Space at the BCRC.” The 96-bed facility is also known as the Berks County Residential Center, or the BCRC.
After a months-long Right-to-Know process, Berks County released the letter of support Wednesday from county officials to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The brief letter confirms WITF’s reporting that the proposal included more bed space in the Berks Family Residential Center, and corroborated a Washington Post report that cited an unnamed Department of Homeland Security as saying it will be used to house migrant women.
The disclosure comes after the commonwealth’s Office of Open Records found the county did not have sufficient reasoning to withhold the letter from a Right-to-Know request by the Reading Eagle newspaper. The letter did not reveal more about the proposal.
Christopher George, who prepared the proposal, is assistant field office director of enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In response to Right-to-Know requests to Berks County from news organizations, including WITF, George sent a signed attestation to the Office of Open Records saying that Berks County was not in possession of the proposal.
Berks County Commissioners approved a letter of support to ICE for the proposal on Feb. 25. The following day, all of the families detained in the center were released to family or sponsors as they continue their asylum cases.
In his attestation, George reports he prepared the proposal for Berks commissioners on Feb 25. It is not clear if the proposal was written, verbal or in some other form.
The same day, commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a letter of support for the proposal with no public discussion. Leinbach’s comments last week were the first in public giving any details of what commissioners supported.
George’s attestation states that “Berks County is not in possession of the White Paper Proposal, having never been provided a copy of the proposal.” It says the proposal is a document prepared for internal review and discussion within ICE.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment. It has not yet responded to WITF’s Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain the proposal.
The attestation says the proposal is for official use only and “is not to be released to the public or other personnel who do not have a valid ‘need-to-know’ without prior approval of an authorized [Department of Homeland Security] official.”
Without sharing the letter of support publicly, Leinbach shared some insights about the letter in a commissioners’ meeting last week.
“The feds asked, ‘Is the county willing to continue the family [detention] program? Are you willing to consider taking women as a separate group or men as a separate group,’” Leinbach said. “And two of the three of us responded, ‘Yes, we were willing to continue to take families. Yes we were willing to continue — not to continue — to consider [detaining] women; and no, we were not willing to consider [detaining] men.’ Bottom line. That’s it.”
Leinbach did not answer WITF’s questions over the weekend about why he did not mention or if he even knew about the proposal for more bed space in the center.
On Monday, Leinbach and his fellow commissioners did not answer a series of questions about how commissioners learned of the proposal if they never received a copy of it, how many beds were proposed, if the county supported adding beds and if the proposal would require any renovations of the facility.
County officials say Leinbach can’t comment further on the proposal.
“No, Commissioner Leinbach has not received clearance from ICE to speak freely about the proposal or letter,” said county spokeswoman Stephanie Weaver in a written statement Monday. “In his role as a commissioner, he chose to make a statement about the letter of support during a public meeting, but there was no prior discussion about it with other county leadership.”
Weaver directed all questions to ICE. An ICE spokesperson Monday did not answer similar questions about the proposal, only saying no one is currently being held at the center.
Ever since families were released from the Berks Center, ICE officials have maintained that they are exploring if the center will be used to detain families or other populations.
Documents filed in federal court last month say the center is transitioning into an adult detention facility.
ICE’s proposal and the county’s support are a blow to immigration activists. They have demanded the center be shut down, advocating that it be turned into something other than a place to house ICE detainees.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which licenses the center, is not aware of any future plans for the center, according to spokesperson Monday.
DHS denied an expansion of the center that would have doubled its capacity in 2016. The state denied the expansion around the same time it moved to revoke the center’s existing license to house children and to deny the center’s renewal for that license.
The fight over the licensing has been in administrative court for years. An administrative judge said the state did not have sufficient grounds to pull the license, and the state appealed. The center has continued to operate.
A detention facility that would children and adults “would require the department’s approval to increase capacity,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt was the only commissioner to vote “no” for the letter of support. Barnhardt did not respond to requests for comment about his reasons for voting against the letter of support.
Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.