Activists seeking closure of ICE detention facility turn focus to Berks County’s lone Latino commissioner

Shut Down Berks Coalition brings message to Commissioner Michael Rivera’s home during Monday night protest

Anthony Orozco / PA Post

Protesters calling for the release of families held at the Berks Detention Center used a projector to illuminate the outside of Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera’s home on Monday, June 29, 2020.

Immigration rights activists staged a protest outside the home of Michael Rivera on Monday night, targeting the lone Latino member of the Berks County commission.

The protesters want undocumented families to be released from the Berks County Residential Center, where asylum seekers are held on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gathering at Rivera’s Bern Township residence, the small group of activists from Shut Down Berks Coalition used a projector to display messages from families who are still detained at the center.

The quotes were pulled from sworn statements of families detained in the center. The statements appear in an April lawsuit filed by the nonprofit organizations Free Migration Project in Philadelphia and ALDEA- The People’s Justice Center in Reading. The two nonprofits sued the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in the state supreme court, arguing the state failed to make emergency removals to protect families from the coronavirus. The case was refiled in Commonwealth Court and continues to be fought in that court, according to a lawyer in the case.

After police arrived, Rivera spoke with the protestors in English and Spanish for around 15 minutes, all of which was livestreamed over social media.

Protest in lights

Using a portable projector, protestors beamed the following message onto the side of the home of Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera:

“COMMISSIONER RIVERA
END FAMILY DETENTION
SHUT DOWN BERKS”

Protestors also projected quotes from families inside the Berks County Residential Center. The quotes come from sworn statements that appear in an April lawsuit filed by Free Migration Project of Philadelphia and ALDEA- The People’s Justice in Reading:


“We are still all together in this one building. We are scared all of the time. No person in this facility speaks our language.”


“We are not safe.”


“Inside the facility, no one wears gloves or masks. We never had any meeting with any of the staff explaining what the situation regarding COVID-19 is, we only learn what is going on from the TV news. On the TV there seems to be a lot of panic and concern, great steps being taken, but not here in the facility”

A video shared on the Sunrise Berks Instagram page shows Rivera saying he understands the protestors’ desire to close the center but said he had received no formal requests to meet or speak with anyone about the issue.

Rivera did not respond to PA Post’s requests for comment on the protest late Monday night.

The demonstration came only days after U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the release of children due to the risk of the coronavirus in U.S. immigration detention centers.

Berks County’s commissioners did not respond Monday morning to PA Post’s questions about the number of coronavirus cases at the center, what their individual stances on the center are, and if the county will take any action if ICE does not meet Judge Gee’s July 17 deadline to release children.

Instead, an ICE official responded to the emails addressed to the commissioners saying only that the agency is reviewing the ruling.

Troy Turner, an organizer with Shut Down Berks Coalition, said the group chose to protest at Rivera’s home for a number of reasons, which included Rivera’s Latino ethnicity and the commissioner’s appearance at a Black Lives Matter event on Penn Street Bridge earlier this month.

Turner also claimed Rivera has privately expressed support for closing the center but has not come out publicly.

Turner said if Rivera changes his stance on the center, Rivera and Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt could immediately end the county’s contract with the federal government, outvoting County Commissioner Chair Christian Y. Leinbach.

Barnhardt, the county’s sole Democratic commissioner, changed his position on the center in the summer of 2019, saying the federal government’s approach to immigration enforcement caused him to reconsider the county’s contract with the federal government, which he had supported previously.

Barnhardt has reportedly worked with Gov. Tom Wolf’s office to develop alternative uses for the center.

Rivera, a Republican, is the newest addition to the county commissioners, the only Spanish speaker out of the three. He has played an integral role in reaching out to Berks County’s Spanish-speaking population about COVID-19, completing the census and voting.

While running for office in October, Rivera took part in the county’s first-ever bilingual commissioner candidate forum, Una Voz Un Voto. In the forum, Rivera stated (at the 33:25 mark) he had visited the center and found a welcoming and nurturing environment for detained families.

“I would prefer to have them here where we can keep the families together, where we can make sure they are treated well rather than have them sent elsewhere and being treated differently or separated from their families,” Rivera said at the forum.

Rivera’s fellow Republican commissioner, Leinbach, has long supported the county’s leasing of the center to ICE.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for the county to close the center last year, which was opposed by Leinbach.

In its current iteration, the Berks center can house up to 96 people; there were currently 13 asylum seekers at the center as of Monday, according to ICE. The agency did not say how many of those asylum seekers are children.

It is one of three family detention centers in the country and reportedly costs $12 million every year to operate; Berks County’s contract with the federal government brings in $1.3 million annually.

Shut Down Berks Coalition in recent years urged Gov. Wolf to issue an emergency removal order for the asylum seekers. Noting that it had already attempted to strip the facility of its certification to house children, the Wolf administration last year asked the Trump administration to end family detention.

Editor’s Note: The article was updated to clarify the origin of the quotes used in the protest.

Anthony Orozco moderated the 2019 bilingual candidate forums for Una Voz Un Voto. Orozco is a Report for America fellow with PA Post.

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