Experts Urge Texas Not to License Immigration Lockups As "Child Care" Centers

An ID card for an infant held at GEO's Karnes detention center for immigrant women and children
An ID card for an infant held at GEO's Karnes detention center for immigrant women and children

Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp are urging Texas not to license federal immigration lockups as “child care” centers.

Officials with the Texas Department of Family Services heard some three hours of testimony Wednesday from more than 40 witnesses deeply troubled by the agency’s plan to create a whole new child care licensing category for two facilities that primarily detain asylum-seeking women and children. The compounds, built in the tiny, geographically isolated South Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley, are run by the same private prison behemoths that have seen profits soar with the rise in immigration enforcement and detention.

Such “family residential centers,” as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials call them, have come under fire not just by advocates but also by the courts. This summer, a federal judge in California ruled that the family lockups violate a longstanding legal settlement designed to keep the feds from ever again holding immigrant children in prison-like conditions. As the feds scrambled to comply with the judge’s ruling, Texas came in with the assist: state child protection officials would call it an “emergency,” fast-track the process of creating a whole new category for family detention centers and potentially license the facilities without even giving the public opportunity to vet or comment on the plan.

Immigrant rights advocates were appalled that Texas would try to save the distasteful practice of family detention. Child welfare experts, who contend the type of family detention employed by ICE is damaging to child development, were floored by the plan, saying Texas was lowering its child care standards to meet those of ICE.

Late last month, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, a state district judged ruled no such “emergency” existed and that the state couldn’t bypass the normal process. DFPS was forced to hold a public comment period.

At Wednesday’s hearing, mothers who have since left the detention centers spoke of being separated from their children for extended periods of time and of inadequate medical care. Greg Hansch, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas, told officials that children detained at Karnes and Dilley are losing weight, shedding hair, and exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression. “It is not child care when children are not only being blocked from achieving normal milestones but are also experiencing regression,” he said.

One social worker told DFPS officials she was reprimanded when she tried to help suffering mothers or children navigate the facility’s grievance process. Others questioned how the state could even consider granting a license to private prison companies recently accused by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of holding immigrants in “inhumane conditions” that are “inconsistent with American values.”

And then there was Satsuki Ina, who was born in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II and told officials she was "deeply disturbed by what I witnessed and heard from the children and their mothers" during her visit to the detention centers. Ina has written that the practice of family detention "tragically replicates the racism, hysteria, and failure of political leadership of 1942.”

Meanwhile, state officials say bringing the detention centers under the DFPS umbrella is the best way to ensure proper oversight of the facilities. “My staff would make periodic inspections of the facilities,” Paul Morris, assistant commissioner for child care licensing, said Wednesday, according to the Texas Tribune. “They would investigate any allegations of abuse and neglect and any other allege violations of minimum standards.”

That may be so. But experts accuse DFPS of lowering those “minimum standards” to accommodate private prison companies. As Luis Zayas, dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas, told us last month, the new license would flout rules that cap the amount of kids you can house in one room, that keep unrelated boys and girls from being housed together, and requirements that children not share rooms with unrelated adults.

Zayas and others say their opposition to licensing privately run immigration lockups for mothers and kids as a “child care” centers is based on a simple premise: that children in government custody should be placed in the most therapeutic setting possible. By putting children in detention, Zayas told us, “we're truncating their possibility of living as normal of a life as they could.”

Agency officials have not said when they might make their decision on whether to create the new licensing category for the detention centers. DFPS says it will continue to take public comment on the matter until December 14.

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