State Charges Forward With Licensing Immigration Lockups as Childcare Facilities

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Government agencies often break bad or controversial news on Friday afternoons to blunt the impact. Today was no exception.

Friday, just as workers across the state were heading home for the weekend, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced it will continue to take steps toward licensing two of the state's privately run immigration lockups as child-care facilities, despite strong and vocal opposition from both child welfare experts and immigrant rights advocates who say conditions at the detention centers are damaging to child development.

Friday's announcement, first reported by the Associated Press, puts the state on track to grant child-care licenses to immigrant detention centers in the South Texas towns of Dilley and Karnes, which primarily house asylum-seeking women and children. State health officials had sought to fast-track the creation of the new licensing category late last year, calling the situation an “emergency,” ostensibly to help the feds keep the immigrant detention centers open following a couple of scathing federal court rulings that said immigrant children cannot be kept in prison-like conditions.

While the state sought the rule change without a public comment period, a Travis County judge last year ordered officials to hold public hearings on the matter. Luis Zayas, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, is among those sharply critical of the state's plan to license the centers. As we reported last year:

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.”

Advocates who work in the detention centers have also said the privately run immigration lockups have proven unable or unwilling to adequately care for the medical needs of asylum-seeking children in detention. 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 child detainees. As we reported last year, Ryan says that almost all of the children his organization has seen in detention suffer from medical problems — “persistent cough, infections — eye infections, skin infections." He told us that some of the children his organization sees have to go directly to the emergency room once released from detention.

The new rule goes into effect March 1, after which the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison companies that run the Karnes and Dilley detention centers, can re-apply for licenses. Both had already applied for licenses before a judge kicked the rule-change back to a public hearing.

State officials were unavailable for immediate comment on the matter. It is Friday, after all. 

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