York County candidates scrutinize prison's ICE facility
Candidates for York County government offices answered pointed questions from progressive activists Monday about whether they would cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
York Stands Up, a local political group that formed after Democratic congressional candidate Jess King failed to unseat Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker in 2018, hosted the forum Monday, May 6, at York College, with help from CASA, an immigrant and Latino rights group.
"I don’t think we can really pick and choose what laws we enforce, and I think that’s a law on the book that we would have to go along and support the law," said Shane Becker, a Republican who's challenging Sheriff Richard Keuerleber in the May 21 GOP primary.
But Becker said he thinks there could be some leeway given to people living in the country illegally who are just trying to survive, get along and become a part of society.
Immigration enforcement would not be a priority for the sheriff's department under Becker's leadership, he said, except for immigrants who commit crimes.
"There are a few bad apples in every bunch," he said. "You just can’t lump them all in one barrel and say we’ve got to go catch them all."
The audience member who asked the question directed it specifically to Becker and to Sandra Thompson, a Democrat and one of three candidates for the York County Court of Common Pleas. Thompson has cross-filed for the race.
Thompson said that on the side of the courts, she would be aware of the cultural background of black and Latino families, particularly regarding the care of minors whose parents may be detained.
If a parent is picked up by ICE and taken into custody unexpectedly, she said there's often not a plan for where their children will go and that close family friends are not given the option of caring for the children.
"You have somebody who the child regards as an aunt or an uncle who’s very close and been in that child’s life for years, but yet they’re not related by blood," Thompson said. "So, Children and Youth do not regard them as a resource because they’re not by blood."
If the families didn't have a plan in place for where their children would go in that scenario, the children would be taken into care by the county, Thompson said.
"These are the types of things that, just having knowledge of underlying issues and cultural issues, that I can be aware of as a judge," she said.
Prison capacity: In another immigration question, a CASA member asked the county commissioner candidates if they would support decreasing the capacity for ICE detainees at York County Prison.
"We have seen that the more beds we have in our prison, the more people get detained," the CASA member asked. "Understanding this and the cruel reality of separating families, would you support a decrease in the number of beds in York County Prison?"
In 2018, York County received $27.2 million from the federal government to house and transport prisoners and maintain the detention facility for an average daily population of 695 ICE detainees, according to 2018 statistics.
The prison can hold a maximum of 800 ICE detainees.
Commissioner Doug Hoke, a Democrat running for reelection, also is president of the York County Prison Board.
"This immigration problem is a disaster with the federal government, and York County doesn’t make those rules," Hoke said. "We get called by the federal government, the ICE people, and (they) say, 'do you have beds available?'"
Federal immigration officers determine which detainees are sent to York County, Hoke said, and the county does collect a fee for the services it provides.
But Hoke pointed out that York County doesn't house immigrant families or children and that the county is not involved in the now-defunct policy of family separation at the southern border.
"We look out for their best interests," Hoke said of ICE detainees in York. "They are treated well. They’re given a warm bed, three meals a day."
The county is in the middle of renegotiating its ICE contract with the federal government.
Blanda Nace, the only Republican commissioner candidate at the forum, said he understands, in some respect, the county's position on offering empty space to immigration authorities in exchange for a fee that helps fund the county budget, but he said he needs to do more research on the subject.
"I really wrestle with that, because I see the costs and benefits of having someone pay for empty space," Nace said. "But we’re getting paid for housing people, and that just doesn’t gel."
Democratic candidate Karen Crosby said she would not be in favor of increasing the number of beds in the ICE facility.
"I know that immigration, detaining the immigrants at the prison, that’s a huge moneymaker for the prison, and I think that’s really sad," she said.
Organizations such as CASA should have more funding and resources to help immigrants become productive members of society, rather than detaining them as if they're criminals, Crosby said.
"It’s really hard to think about people being profited off of because they’re trying to reach freedom and they’re trying to reach a better life," said Judith Higgins, another Democratic candidate. "That’s probably the saddest part of the entire conversation."
Higgins said the county should find ways to cut down on the number of beds at the ICE facility and adopt policies that would provide immigrant families with the support they need to integrate into society.
Democratic candidate Madeline Geiman said she also would support decreasing the capacity for ICE detainees at York County Prison.
"One of the things that I have learned in my research is that if there is just a minor mistake, a missed letter or something, in the paperwork, these immigrants are detained," Geiman said. "Instead of being counseled, they’re put right into the prison."
Geiman said the county should not be profiting from immigration enforcement efforts.
Four other Republican candidates for county commissioner — Ron Smith, Julie Wheeler, Steve Chronister and Chris Reilly — did not participate.
York Stands Up invited all candidates to take part in the forum.