Texas Could License Immigrant Lockups As "Family Residential Centers"

This summer a federal judge in California unambiguously condemned the current practice of jailing immigrant women and children in Texas detention centers run by for-profit prison corporations that contract with federal immigration authorities. In July and August rulings, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee declared that federal detention centers in the remote South Texas towns of Dilley and Karnes violate a longstanding legal settlement that prohibits the feds from keeping immigrant children in prison-like conditions.

As part of her August ruling, Dee wrote that federal immigration authorities could no longer hold kids in facilities that aren't licensed to house or care for children. And with the October 23 deadline for the feds to comply with that court ruling fast approaching, the State of Texas appears more than willing to help the feds out.

As the Associated Press first reported today, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is now considering whether to license two private prison-run immigrant detention centers as “family residential centers.” While state officials say they plan to inspect the Dilley and Karnes facilities this month to see if they meet minimum state standards, immigrant rights advocates fear Texas is simply swooping in to help keep the state's family detention centers, which mostly house asylum-seeking women and children, open.

Last month DFPS officials approached the state Health and Human Services Commission seeking a rule change to allow the state to license “family residential centers,” citing the “gap in the oversight of children” housed in federal immigration lockups in Texas. “The rule was proposed and adopted on the same day,” DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmons told the Houston Press on Friday. That means the state approved a whole new category of residential facilities for children without hearing any public comments on the matter.

That's because DFPS determined the matter was an “emergency,” which, according to the state government code, means there's “imminent peril to the public health, safety or welfare" unless the state acts immediately. Which is somewhat perplexing, since the state has more than once refused to license family immigrant detention centers in Texas.

For instance, in 2007, when the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the new Dilley detention center, contracted with federal immigration authorities to run the infamous T. Don Hutto family lockup near Taylor, DFPS exempted CCA from any licensing requirements. Last summer CCA built Dilley and the private prison company GEO Group designated its Karnes facility to detain immigrant women and children fleeing violence in Central America that had come across the Texas-Mexico border in record numbers. When advocates back then asked what kind of oversight state officials might have over such facilities, DFPS responded that it's not in the business of licensing privately operated family detention centers.

“These aren't facilities that are created and built for the purposes of child welfare. They're an immigration enforcement mechanism,” says Christina Parker with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based advocacy group that has criticized the conditions immigrants are housed in at Dilley and Karnes. “To license them as child care facilities would basically be to rescue the federal government from a court order against these places.” Two weeks ago Grassroots filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming DFPS circumvented the normal rule-making process to avoid public comment on what was certain to be a controversial decision.

“This is a department that is supposed to be ensuring the welfare of children and families,” Parker said. “To come in and rescue the federal government in this way sets a really dangerous precedent for childcare in Texas.”

Advocates and attorneys that represent families held at the facilities say the detention centers are woefully inadequate for women and children. In a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott this week, lawyers, professors and advocacy groups from across the country urged Texas to deny licensing the CCA and GEO facilities. “Numerous independent individuals and organizations have documented the fact that children at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers are exposed to conditions that in any other setting child care professionals would deem at best neglectful and at worst abusive,” the letter states (see the full letter below). Both companies have vociferously denied those allegations.

Amy Fischer, policy director with RAICES, a San Antonio-based legal aid group representing women and children detained at Dilley and Karnes, says she's holding out some hope that DFPS will investigate and ultimately deny the private prison companies a license. Otherwise, she says, “the state would be legitimizing jail for families and children.” 

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas