York County officials unfazed by Berks County commissioner's ICE reversal

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Protesters held signs during Friday's mass mobilization against the Trump administration’s human detention camps by participating in Lights for Liberty at York County's ICE Detention Center at York County Prison. (Bil Bowden photo)

A Berks County commissioner's announcement Tuesday that he no longer approves of his county working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not sway York County officials on the subject.

Kevin S. Barnhardt, a Democrat seeking his fourth term on the Berks County Board of Commissioners, said in his statement that the Berks County Residential Center, a facility for immigrant families seeking asylum in the United States, should be shut down.

He referred to the recent talk of deportations and increased immigration enforcement nationally and said he doesn't support door-to-door ICE raids.

"I do not want victims of immigration raids to be housed at the BCRC," he stated. "It is NOT a jail and should not be treated as one."

But comparing a family residential center with the ICE detention facility at York County Prison is like comparing apples to oranges, said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke, also a Democrat seeking reelection.

The residential center is for families who are waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated, while the facility in York County is a prison for immigrant detainees who have allegedly overstayed their visas, entered the country illegally or committed other crimes.

York County's ICE detainees are held at the facility so their immigration status can be determined, at which point they'll either be released on bond, released to remain legally in the country or given a deportation order, Hoke said.

"The inmates are receiving medical care, dental care, psychiatric care and shelter here in our prison," Hoke said. "We’re treating them fairly."

York County is renegotiating its contract with ICE, officials have said. 

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The Berks County Residential Center for asylum-seeking families has a whole different function and isn't relevant to York County's ICE detention center, said York County Commissioner Chris Reilly.

"Speaking personally, his position will have no impact on how I view our relationship with ICE," Reilly said of Barnhardt's statement.

York County Commissioner Susan Byrnes declined to comment, deferring instead to Hoke, who is chairman of the York County Prison Board.

The BCRC does have a black mark on its record with regard to mistreatment of at least one detainee, and Berks County is facing a federal lawsuit as a result.

In April 2016, a former BCRC employee pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault for the rape of a woman who was seeking asylum and living at the residential center, the Reading Eagle reported.

Daniel Sharkey, the former employee, was sentenced to six to 23 months in Berks County Prison, plus three years of probation. He will be required to register as a sex offender for the next 15 years, according to the Reading Eagle report.

The victim, who was 19 when the assault occurred, had reportedly traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her 3-year-old son to claim asylum after fleeing domestic violence and sexual assault.

Candidates weigh in: Challengers running for a seat on the York County Board of Commissioners were hesitant to speak in detail without more information.

Ron Smith, a Republican, said he'd like to learn more of the facts about the facilities before commenting.

Judith Higgins, a Democrat, said there's a significant difference between the facilities in Berks and York counties, and that if the Berks County Residential Center were to shut down, she would not support keeping those families at York County Prison.

But without more information about the county's contract with ICE, Higgins declined to comment further.

Republican Julie Wheeler was not immediately available to comment Wednesday afternoon.