69 News: Dean, others call on Biden to end ICE contract with Berks

WASHINGTON — A member of Berks County’s congressional delegation and some of her colleagues are echoing repeated calls for the federal government to end its practice of detaining undocumented immigrants in Berks County.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean announced Friday afternoon that she recently sent a letter to President Joe Biden, urging him and the Department of Homeland Security to terminate the contract Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has with Berks County to operate the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township.

The center had been used for many years to house families awaiting asylum in the United States, but it closed earlier this year when Biden issued an executive order to stop the practice of detaining families.

In August, the Berks County commissioners approved a change to the contract, allowing ICE to house only migrant women at the center.

“Incarcerating asylum seekers, whether they are women, families, or children, is cruel, inhumane, abusive, and unnecessary,” Dean said in her letter, which was also signed by Philadelphia-area U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, Dwight Evans, and Brendan Boyle. “Furthermore, it is a violation not only of American civil liberties, but international human rights.”

Dean said she is also concerned about the possibility of sexual assault at the center, pointing to “years of documented incidents” at an all-women facility in Texas. She also cited a settlement last year in which Berks County paid $75,000 to a woman who was sexually assaulted while being detained at the county-owned center. A former staff member was convicted of institutional sexual assault in the case.

“This incident follows years of documented medical neglect, forced labor, mistreatment, and sexual abuse at detention centers across the country,” Dean said. “We unequivocally stand against new plans to detain, process, incarcerate, or subject immigrant women to federal actions within the facility.”

County leaders have defended the center and its staff, pointing to dozens of inspections conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services since 2015. They said inspectors have praised the county for “the excellent work performed by employees and the quality of the facility.”

Dean and her colleagues are not alone in calling for the federal government to terminate its contract with Berks County.

In July, freshman state Rep. Manny Guzman sent a letter of his own to the White House. It was signed by more than 50 state and local elected officials, including state Sen. Judy Schwank, Reading Mayor Eddie Morán.

Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has also been vocal in his criticism of the center, and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for the facility’s closure during his 2016 bid for the White House.