(*This story has been updated with additional comment from Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott)
Citing its high cost and long history of controversy, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has called on the federal government to shut down the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pa.
The 96-bed center is owned by Berks County, and leased by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s one of only three such centers nationwide where migrants and asylum-seekers, including children, are held, while their immigration status is adjudicated in the federal court system.
At a news conference in his Harrisburg office on Wednesday, DePasquale, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2020, said the detention center costs American taxpayers nearly $12 million a year “to incarcerate people who are not facing criminal charges.”
Most of the people housed there, he said in a statement, are “taking the legally defined steps for asylum.” DePasquale told reporters Wednesday that it would be better for migrants and asylum-seekers to be housed in the community, under proper supervision, to ease their transition into American society.
“I’d urge Berks County to reconsider if it wants to keep profiting from people who are being held in prison while they await a court hearing,” he said.
A report issued by DePasquale’s office recommends that community release. It also recommends that the state Department of Human Services continues its monthly inspections at the center as long as it remains open and continues to house children. DePasquale added the DHS’ presence gave his office latitude to launch its six-month probe of the detention center.
DePasquale echoed concerns that children are being held in the center in violation of what’s known as the Flores Agreement, a 1997 federal legal settlement that forbids the detaining of immigrant children for more than 20 days.
Officials in the Democratic Wolf administration and Berks County have spent months trying to find a mutually agreeable way to shut down the center, WITF-FM reported in October. The county nets about $1.3 million a year from the center, providing jobs to 59 county employees.
Activists have called on the administration to issue what’s known as an “emergency removal order,” if it can be shown that the center poses a clear and present danger to those housed within. So far, the administration has said those grounds do not exist, WITF-FM reported.
DePasquale said Wednesday that he hoped those joint negotiations between the administration and Berks County would continue.
A spokesman for Wolf, J.J. Abbott, confirmed Wednesday that those talks are ongoing.
*”To be clear, the county can cancel this contract at any time. The county contracts directly with ICE, and they have since the county commissioners voted to establish this center. The state has tried to end the license for the facility but the county is currently fighting to keep it. Until recently, all the commissioners have renewed and defended the contract and the use of the facility,” Abbott said in an email.
In a statement, the immigration advocacy group CASA thanked DePasquale for his report, saying “the existence of family detention in Pennsylvania sends a toxic message to immigrant children that families like their own lack are not valued in our state.”