Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Wednesday called for the closure of the Berks County family detention center, saying American taxpayers are spending $12 million a year to confine immigrants “who have done absolutely nothing illegal.”
During a news conference in Harrisburg, the auditor general joined a chorus of public officials who have endorsed shuttering the center, which holds migrant mothers, fathers, and children who are pursuing legal attempts to stay in the country.
“Seeking asylum is not against the law,” DePasquale said. “Seeking to become a productive resident of the United States is not only not illegal but is actually something we should be encouraging.”
He said ICE denied his requests to tour the facility. The center is operated by the county through a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We are well past the time to close the Berks center,” DePasquale said. He noted the facility’s documented history of human-rights violations, "including prolonged detentions and sexual assault.”
DePasquale also issued a 15-page report with two main recommendations: One, undocumented immigrant families should be released and allowed to live in the United States, under oversight from federal authorities. Two, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services must continue to conduct monthly inspections at the center to check on the treatment of children who are held there.
“No one being held at the Berks facility is facing any criminal charges,” he said. “But the center still essentially functions as a jail.”
ICE declined to publicly respond to DePasquale’s remarks. “ICE responds to state officials via official channels,” a spokesperson said. “Any agency response to state officials will be provided through those official channels.”
The Shut Down Berks coalition endorsed the auditor general’s report, but said families in detention “cannot wait for the federal government to grow a heart” and that other state officials must move to close the center on their own authority.
As auditor general, DePasquale has no enforcement power over the operation of such facilities. He instead works as a watchdog over state government spending. He noted at the news conference that the DHS inspections are paid for by state taxpayers.
ICE’s refusal to let him enter the facility forced the auditor general and his staff to rely on DHS inspection reports and other studies and documents.
It’s far cheaper for taxpayers to allow migrants to live free from confinement, DePasquale said. A study by the American Immigration Council found that 96 percent of asylum-seekers show up for their Immigration Court hearings. And as those cases proceed, families will be integrating into society.
The auditor general said he wanted the approximately 59 county employees at the center to be hired for jobs at whatever new operation might move into the detention center space.
DePasquale, a Democrat, is running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 10th District, which covers Dauphin County and parts of Cumberland and York Counties. If DePasquale were to win the April primary, he would face incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Perry in November.
Formally known as the Berks County Residential Center, the 96-bed lockup in Leesport, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is one of three centers where the federal government confines undocumented families and has long been assailed by critics as a “baby jail.”
Amnesty International has condemned Berks and similar facilities as inhumane and expensive, saying they “undermine our country’s long history as a beacon of hope for people seeking safety.”
Berks drew international attention in October for holding a 3-month-old boy in what his mother described as filthy and frigid conditions. Generally, the families at Berks are seeking asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States for those facing danger or even death in their homelands.
Some ended up at Berks after presenting themselves to authorities at the southern border with Mexico. Some missed court hearings without knowing it and were issued deportation orders, then picked up at home, work, or during routine check-ins with ICE.
At one point this fall, Berks held seven children aged 4 or under, according to ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center, the legal nonprofit group that represents many of the immigrant families held there.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.