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Texas Prisons For Migrant Families May Be Licensed As ‘Childcare Facilities’

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) may grant childcare licenses to for-profit family detention centers in an effort to help private prison giants and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency comply with a federal court order, which states immigrant children and their families cannot be locked up in unlicensed facilities.

In her July 24 ruling [PDF], Judge Dolly Gee admonished the Obama administration for holding children and their parents in defiance of the order, writing that the inability to license family detention centers meant “class members cannot be housed in these facilities except as permitted by the Agreement.” The deadline for compliance is October 23.

Last year, in response to a records request by the American Civil Liberties Union, the DFPS claimed it does not license family detention centers because it is a state agency and the lock-ups are under federal supervision.

A new letter [PDF] signed by Grassroots Leadership and several other Texas-based criminal justice organizations, academics, and experts indicates the DFPS acknowledged it would be impossible to license family detention centers according to their current standards. So, the agency adopted emergency rules in September to create exceptions for licensing immigrant detention facilities.

Grassroots Leadership sued the DFPS for adopting the emergency rules “when there is no emergency,” and denying the public their statutory right to comment on the pending rules and receive written responses from DFPS before they were adopted.

The coalition contends the rule making is “fundamentally at odds with the agency’s mission of ensuring safe and healthy childcare services as part of its overall mandate to protect children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.” For instance, the emergency rules exempt family detention centers from”standards on maximum number of room occupants, sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults, and sharing bedrooms with the opposite gender.” Such housing conditions are harmful to a child’s psychological development and multiple cases of child sexual abuse have been reported at these facilities as a result of these living arrangements.

DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the Associated Press the licensing process was “rigorous” and inspections would begin this month. If the standards are met, Texas would grant the facilities six-month provisional licenses.

But the coalition argues the DFPS and other agencies should use their existing powers to conduct oversight and enforce current standards on family detention centers instead of adopting new, compromised standards to accommodate the abysmal conditions of these facilities.

Licensing a detention center as a childcare facility would effectively put the state agency’s “seal of approval” on the mistreatment and abuse therein, according to the coalition. It would also clearly cement the co-optation of an independent state agency to support the Obama administration’s attempt to end-run a federal court order stating the facilities must be closed:

[W]e are concerned that the federal immigration agency is essentially coopting DFPS’s limited resources to further federal detention policy decisions that have been found to be unlawful. As noted in the order adopting the emergency rule, the sole purpose of the emergency DFPS regulation is to assist the federal government in complying with the federal district court’s order in Flores v. Lynch, which confirmed that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. Licensing facilities by exempting them from the Texas minimum care standards does not meet the child welfare concerns raised by the federal court and the 1997 Flores settlement agreement that it is enforcing.

If not to provide for the health and safety of children, the only purpose of the new rules must be to serve the interests of the executive office.

Not only does state licensing bolster the federal government’s defense that it is bringing its facilities into compliance with the court order and can be trusted. It also ensures cash keeps flowing to GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, which are paid by taxpayer dollars under contract with the government to own and operate the facilities.

Even if the family detention centers obtain licenses from DFPS, they are still facilities where immigrant children and their families cannot leave. They should therefore still be in violation of the court order’s provisions against “secure” facilities.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.