Texas Blocked From Giving Childcare License to South Texas Immigration Lockup

click to enlarge The immigrant detention complex in Dilley, Texas. - Google Earth
Google Earth
The immigrant detention complex in Dilley, Texas.
An Austin judge has ruled that Texas officials can’t arbitrarily lower their standards for childcare facilities just to license an immigration detention center run by a for-profit prison corporation in the desolate South Texas town of Dilley.

Activists and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services were back in court in Travis County Wednesday over a lawsuit seeking to block the state from licensing facilities the Obama Administration has used to detain asylum-seeking women and children, facilities run by private prison companies that have seen profits soar due to the rise in immigrant detention. At Wednesday’s hearing, State District Judge Karin Crump heard hours of testimony from child welfare experts like Luis Zayas, the dean of the University of Texas School of Social Work, who has loudly and repeatedly told state officials and the media that the detention centers are detrimental to healthy child development. 

In her ruling Wednesday, Crump honed in on recent rule changes made by DFPS that grant special exemptions to the immigrant detention centers that, among other things, allowed the facilities to ignore a longstanding rule that children in state licensed centers not be housed with unrelated adults. Mothers detained at the facilities and activists who have mounted the legal challenge in court argue that DFPS is lowering its standards to accommodate the feds as the Obama Administration fights to maintain the controversial practice of detaining asylum-seeking families. Last month a mother who fled rape and death threats in El Salvador alleged that her daughter was molested by another woman the family was forced to bunk with at a similar detention center in nearby Karnes County. In sworn affidavits filed in court, the mother alleges that facility staff ignored her complaints and requests to change rooms as her daughter’s sexual harassment grew worse.

According to the Texas Tribune, this was Crump's response after hearing arguments that Dilley shouldn't be granted a childcare license: “The exceptions allow and have allowed for situations for children that are dangerous."

Crump's ruling comes at a particularly awkward time for the Obama Administration, which is appealing a federal judge's ruling in California that ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fundamentally reform how it houses immigrant children. Last year, federal district court Judge Dolly M. Gee said the current practice of family detention violates a longstanding legal settlement, known as the Flores decision, that's supposed to bar the feds from ever again housing migrant children in prison-like conditions.

For roughly a decade, child protection officials in Texas took the position that the state had no regulatory or oversight role over immigrant detention centers in the state that house children. That abruptly changed after Gee's ruling, which chided the feds for housing kids in centers that weren't even licensed by state child welfare departments. Last year DFPS called the situation an "emergency" and sought to pass new rules that would lower the standards for the detention centers and allow them to apply for a state license. 

Neither state nor federal officials will comment on whether the feds pushed for Texas to get into the business of licensing immigrant detention centers, but the timing was certainly curious, says Denise Gilman, the director of the University of Texas' immigration law clinic who is among the many attorneys performing legal triage for asylum-seeking families at the South Texas lockups. The Obama Administration goes before the federal Ninth Circuit appeals court next week hoping to overturn Judge Gee's ruling that ordered the feds to reform how they detain immigrant kids. Government lawyers were likely hoping to have a state license to back them up in court, Gilman suspects. 

"Just look at the timing. ... All parties were very interested in having these licenses issued quickly before the court took this issue up again," she told the Current Thursday morning. 

DFPS has meanwhile shrugged off criticism by insisting the detention centers need state regulation to improve. If that rings somewhat hollow, it might be because the agency was recently excoriated by a federal judge who ruled that Texas regulators for years ignored systemic internal failures that left the most vulnerable children in the state foster care system exposed to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Gilman says that even if Wednesday's injunction were lifted and Texas licensed Dilley, that piece of paper might not mean much to the federal appeals court in California that could soon decide the fate of family detention — just as the feds prepare for what they're calling another "surge" of families crossing the border and seeking asylum. 

Even if licensed, Gilman argues that Dilley and Karnes still wouldn't comply with the Flores settlement that's supposed to guide federal policy in housing immigrant children. For instance, she says, the Flores decision orders the feds to house kids in non-secure facilities.

"These are still detention centers, no matter how you look at them," she says.


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