Texas May Call Them Childcare Centers, Critics Say They're Prisons

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

Last week a Travis County judge ruled that Texas cannot fast-track the process of licensing for-profit immigration lockups for women and children as childcare facilities, opening a window for public comment and scrutiny over a proposal that has made immigrant rights advocates and social workers cringe. 

The ruling comes as immigration officials scramble to abide by a federal court order to reform how the government houses and cares for immigrant children. One helpful solution the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services came up with in September was to quickly create and license a new type of childcare center, so-called “family residential centers.” Within two weeks of that “emergency” rule change, the private prison companies that run compounds in the desolate South Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley, where primarily asylum-seeking women and children are detained, applied for childcare licenses.

While state officials tried to fast-track the process, Travis County District Judge Karin Crump last Friday ordered DFPS to slow things down, saying the public has the right to vet and comment on the agency's proposed rule change.

That means people like Luis Zayas have until December 14 to scrutinize DFPS's plan to consider licensing immigrant detention centers as childcare facilities. Zayas, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing earlier this month requesting that a judge halt the state's plan to go forward without public comment. (The Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership sued to keep DFPS from circumventing the normal rule-making process to avoid public comment.)

Zayas and others have argued that the type of family detention employed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its private prison contractors is inherently flawed and damaging to child development. “Most of these children are fleeing violence, so they don't come from a so-called normal background,” Zayas told the Houston Press. “But by putting them in these places, we're truncating their possibility of living as normal of a life as they could.”

Such concerns are at the heart of an 18-year-old legal settlement in the case Flores v Meese, which was intended to keep the government from housing children apprehended at the border in prison-like conditions, says Denise Gilman, who directs the immigration law clinic at UT's law school. Flores is the reason the ACLU won a 2009 lawsuit that forced ICE to pull children from Texas's T. Don Hutto detention center, where kids were reportedly put in orange prison jumpsuits, forced to sleep with the lights on, confined to their cells for 12 hours at a time and received up to only one hour of school every day.

Gone are the jumpsuits, but advocates and experts who work inside or have visited Texas's family detention centers say they're still more like prisons than childcare facilities deserving of a state license. Jonathan Ryan runs the San Antonio-based nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, which coordinates pro-bono legal representation for the women and children detainees. “The no. 1 and far and away issue has been medical care,” he told the Press.

Ryan says that almost all of the children the organization has seen in detention suffer from various ailments—“Persistent cough, infections—eye infections, skin infections." Ryan even says that some of the children his organization sees have to go directly to the emergency room once released from detention. He spoke of one eight-year-old hospitalized for pneumonia and a 105 degree fever just an hour after leaving the Karnes facility. The mother, he says, told the organization she'd begged detention staff for medical attention for days. “They told her to make him drink more water,” Ryan said.

And it's not that the children shuffled to ICE detention centers are disease-ridden or sicker than average kids, Ryan insists. “They get sick while they're there in detention,” he said. “And for those who do happen to arrive sick, they get worse in detention, not better.” Since 2008, RAICES has worked with thousands of unaccompanied minors and refugee children placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement with state-licensed care providers. Ryan claims there's a “night and day” difference between the type of care those children get and what children in immigrant detention experience. “It's the same kid, the same journey, similar length of stay, but different placement,” he said. “And the difference is shocking.”

Pablo Paez, spokesman for the GEO Group, which runs the Karnes family detention center, said in a prepared statement to the Press that the facility “provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment,” and that the company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary. (Paez also pointed to an Office of Inspector General report earlier this year that determined allegations of sex abuse at the hands of guards at Karnes were unfounded.)

When she set an October 23 deadline for immigration officials to change their detention practices, California federal district court judge Dolly Gee also demanded that the U.S Department of Homeland Security, ICE's umbrella agency, process and release children from detention “without unnecessary delay.” While attorneys say mothers and children in family detention are being released faster than ever (Gilman says most are now released within 20 to 30 days, whereas families used to spend upwards of a year in detention), that has apparently created even more problems.

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Ryan with RAICES insists more families are being deported before they can contest a government finding that they don't qualify for asylum. “They've ramped up the speed and the volume of preliminary interviews, and they're deporting women so quickly, without in many instances allowing for any kind of review of that decision,” he told the Press. Some mothers, he claims, have been deported without even a preliminary interview with officials.

“This was simply not the case before,” Ryan said. The government, he claims, is doing back flips and in many cases “skirting due process and fundamental fairness” in reaction to the federal judge's order. “To be clear,” Ryan says, “the result of deportation for many of these people is death—a civil penalty that in many cases carries a death sentence.” (ICE officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ryan and others say that Texas would consider licensing such facilities only serves to validate the flawed practice of family detention. Meanwhile social workers like Zayas also fear that state child protection officials are lowering their standards to meet those of ICE.

Zayas says DFPS's new license would allow private prison contractors to 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.

The problems with DFPS's plan run even deeper than that, Zayas says. Except for juvenile detention and psychiatric facilities, state-licensed childcare centers are supposed to provide open spaces where children and families can live lives approaching normal. “Even in shelters for domestic violence,” he says, “mothers are given a chance to be active mothers—they can cook for their own family, have dinner together, enjoy some degree of autonomy.”

Zayas has toured Karnes and says simply granting it “residential family center” status doesn't change the fact that it's an immigration lockup. The idea that such facilities should be licensed as childcare centers flies in the face of what is supposed to be one of DFPS's central goals: that kids in government custody be placed in the most therapeutic setting possible.

“We know that when a mother is incarcerated it damages the child, we know that when a child is incarcerated that that's harmful,” Zayas said. “And these are not felons or convicted criminals, but mothers and children fleeing an awful situation. … It's just not simply the kind of environment that's therapeutic, which is what [DFPS] is supposed to ensure.”

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