At the very end of the day on Friday, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission quietly lowered its standards for licensing childcare facilities. The decision paves the way for for-profit immigrant family detention centers in the state to remain open by bringing them in compliance with a federal court order.
According to the terms of a 1997 settlement agreement [PDF], children taken into custody by U.S. immigration officials could not be held in secure, unlicensed facilities. Nonetheless, the Obama administration renewed the mass detention of immigrant families in 2014.
The administration had defended the practice of incarcerating children with their parents by arguing it was better to keep families together. It also crudely argued there was no acceptable state licensing procedure for federal detention centers, so it couldn’t comply with the order that they be licensed.
Federal Judge Dolly Gee disagreed [PDF] with President Obama’s justifications and ordered the administration to cease its detention of children in unlicensed facilities in June 2015. This meant immigrant families like those held in two Texas family prisons, the Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Family Residential Center, had to be removed.
The family detention centers, where people of different ages, genders and families are made to live and sleep together in large dormitories, have unsurprisingly been home to allegations of sexual assault, violence and living conditions both inhumane and inappropriate for children. Advocates say the Department of Homeland Security covered up the sexual abuse when it claimed there was no evidence to substantiate any of the detainees’ claims.
A few months later, Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services announced emergency rules that lowered standards, allowing family detention centers to apply for childcare licenses–opening a path to compliance with the federal court order where the agency had previously said it was “impossible.” Some of the standards [PDF] relaxed by the DFPS include the maximum number of occupants per room, sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults, and sharing bedrooms with the opposite gender–essentially validating the immense trauma immigrant children and their families are made to endure.
The state’s Health and Human Services Commission has now signed off on the new standards, giving the DFPS the authority it needs to keep Texas’ family detention centers open, in business, and full of young children and their families.
Rachel Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, reacted, “We are dismayed that the welfare and human rights of Central American mothers and children — and now possibly, also Syrian refugee families who are coming through the Texas system — are being jeopardized.”
“These families and unaccompanied minors are pawns caught in a terrible national political chess game,” she said, “where Governor Abbott and the Obama Administration are colluding to keep the family detention apparatus going.”
Texas is indeed placing the interests of the federal government and its battle on immigration before the interests of children. By allowing family detention centers to become licensed for childcare and remain open, the DFPS is not improving conditions for the vulnerable in its charge. Instead, it is covering for the government’s shameful abuses, entrenching private prison profits and furthering the mass incarceration of immigrant families.