Texas state officials are moving ahead with a proposal to license controversial detention centers for detained immigrant families as child care facilities.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) Council submitted a proposed rule last week that would create a child care licensing category at two family detention centers located in Dilley and Karnes City. The proposed rule is up for consideration with the state’s Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), though it’s as yet unknown when the commission will make a final decision, the Texas Observer reported.
The two Texas detention centers currently have the capacity to hold more than 2,000 detained women and children who are waiting for their court cases to be adjudicated. The federal government has contracts with three private prison-operated facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania to detain and process Central American women and children who began showing up in large numbers since the 2014 fiscal year.
With increasing gang violence, immigration officials detained as many as 68,445 family units in the 2014 fiscal year at the southwest U.S. border. The United States experienced a dip in the number of unaccompanied children and family units in the 2015 fiscal year. But federal officials are expecting another “surge” this year, with the Obama administration authorizing a series of immigration raids throughout the country.
The category change has been widely condemned by child welfare and immigrant rights activists who gathered before the meeting to demand that state officials scrap plans. An Open Records Request obtained by the activist organization, Grassroots Leadership, found that Texas DFPS Commissioner Judge John Specia, Jr. and Texas Governor Greg Abbott “received more than 5,000 pages worth of comments in opposition to the proposal,” according to a press statement.
Other advocates, who work with asylum-seeking Central American mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty, were similarly distressed. They noted that changing the name of the facilities does little to detract from its real aim of detaining children and mothers and that detention facilities do not have a good track record of detaining women and children in adequate conditions.
“Calling them ‘child-care facilities’ makes people forget the main thing about detention: you’re not allowed to leave,” Nicholas Marritz, a pro bono attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center based in Virginia, told ThinkProgress. “And as a federal judge ruled last year, no matter how rosy a picture the government may paint of these facilities, restraining children in a place that they’re not allowed to leave can cause them ‘long-lasting psychological, developmental, and physical harm.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘child care’ to me.”
Last year, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration violated the Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement that dictated how unaccompanied children who enter the country without a parent should be treated in detention. That settlement called for minors to be granted bond and placed in the custody of family or a legal guardian when available and for children to be held in the least restrictive environment possible. At the time, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee noted that children were being held in “widespread deplorable conditions,” saying that immigration officials “wholly failed” to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions for children.
“It is simply unfathomable that the United States continues the fight to jail refugee children in deportation internment camps where they are subjected to neglect, abuse, and torture,” Matthew Kolken, an immigration lawyer based in Buffalo, New York, told ThinkProgress. “State officials in Texas should send their own children to these ‘child care’ facilities for a week, and see how they fare.”
In late January, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services declined to renew the child care operating license for the only other family detention center in the United States, located at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania.
Facility operators have not done much to address some of the ongoing issues that children (and mothers) face in detention centers. At a now-defunct immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, in 2014, one child shouted “ayuda” (help) as a group of immigrant advocates and attorneys walked by. At Karnes, three families were kept in a dark medical infirmary which acted as a solitary confinement cell. At Dilley, Satsuki Ina, a professor emeritus at California State University in Sacramento, likened her visit to the detention facility to a Japanese internment camp where her family was once held. And at Berks, a lawyer told ThinkProgress last year that many of her young clients don’t eat, vomited, and had diarrhea.