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Judge Temporarily Halts Childcare Licenses For Immigrant Family Detention Centers

A judge in Austin has granted a temporary restraining order barring the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from implementing a new rule that would allow the agency to grant a childcare license to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.

The South Texas Family Residential Center is operated by the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America and jails immigrant families. The department’s new rule, known as 40 TEX. ADMIN. CODE § 748.7, lowered facility standards to permit the licensure of family detention centers for childcare and circumvent a federal court order prohibiting the government from holding children in secure and unlicensed detention centers.

Immigrant rights group, Grassroots Leadership, sued DFPS to block the rule and today won a temporary restraining order that lasts until Friday, May 13, when the court will hear the application and consider blocking it indefinitely.

The department already granted a childcare license to the Karnes County Residential Center, which is a family detention center operated by the private contractor GEO Group. Grassroots Leadership sought a restraining order to stop the department from implementing the rule to invalidate the Karnes license and halt the license for Dilley.

The organization has spearheaded a growing and diverse coalition against the mass detention of immigrant families, arguing facilities like Karnes and Dilley are “baby jails” that violate basic human rights.

In these family detention centers, people of different genders and ages from different families are forced to live and sleep together in large squalid barracks that may hold around 3,000 people. Many detained are victims of trauma, who fled violence in their home countries.

There have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, violence, and living conditions that are inappropriate for children in Texas’ private family detention centers. Advocates claim the government has swept detainee sexual abuse under the rug by claiming there was no evidence to substantiate any of the allegations.

The Texas Observer, which obtained a copy of a five-page inspection report for Karnes, reported:

DFPS identified six “deficiencies” at Karnes. Inspectors discovered that a child was left alone in a bedroom without a parent or adult; an unnamed employee was found to be unqualified for their job; and children’s allergies and chronic medical conditions were not properly documented in their records. Additionally, cleaning carts and supplies were left unattended; the three on-site playgrounds had too little mulch to properly pad the equipment; and the list of rights read to parents and children upon arrival did not include “the child’s rights to be free from being threatened with the loss of placement or shelter as punishment.”

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 living arrangements. And, even for those who are not assaulted, short periods of incarceration are traumatic for children.

Advocates and families have been locked in an arduous battle with federal immigration agencies and the Obama administration since Judge Dolly Gee ordered the government to rapidly close family detention centers and release detainees last summer.

In her order, Judge Gee admonished the government for violating a previous ruling from 1997 when it re-opened family detention centers in 2014. The government has fought vigorously in recent months to keep the detention centers open, working with an independent state childcare agency to bend their rules to the administration’s policy.

In October, as the court’s deadline to close the family detention centers approached, DFPS instituted an emergency rule that lowered facility standards for childcare. The emergency rule relaxed regulations pertaining to the maximum number of room occupants, sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults, and sharing bedrooms with the opposite gender, so that Karnes and Dilley could qualify for a childcare license and comply with the court order. DFPS explicitly stated the standards changes were made to assist the Obama administration in executing its immigration policy.

Grassroots Leadership sued to block the emergency rule and, in November, won a temporary injunction. In December, the government filed a motion to expedite its appeal of Judge Gee’s ruling, citing a surge in unaccompanied minors at the borders.

The government then filed a brief for the appeal in January, at the same time DHS executed a number of raids targeting immigrant families, which the agency said was meant to deter others from illegally crossing the border.

In February, DFPS ignored protests and implemented a new permanent rule to lower standards, and then asked the public to comment on whether or not it should do so.

Thousands of people spoke out against the new rule, including formerly detained families and advocates who testified to the abusive conditions in these facilities, but the rule remained in effect and the agency began accepting applications from the facilities on March 1.

The government has been out of compliance with the court order to close family detention centers since October 23, 2015. But even if regulations are compromised and the license is granted, family detention centers are still facilities, where immigrant children and their families cannot leave, and they should be considered in violation of the court order against detaining children in “secure” facilities.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.