Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
courtesy Department of Homeland Security

Child Careless

Texas doesn't want to take migrant children out of prison-like detention centers, so it found a way to classify the facilities as child care outfits.


A version of this story ran in the March 2016 issue.

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
If it doesn’t license detention facilities as child care centers, the state won’t be legally able to detain migrant children in prison-like conditions.  Department of Homeland Security

Licensing detention centers as child care facilities in order to circumvent rules banning the government from locking up kids and babies in cells.

It’s one of those things where, if you heard about politicians and bureaucrats doing it two continents away, you’d be outraged. You’d send a few bucks to a foreign nonprofit. You’d post an article on Facebook with an all-caps comment. You’d be thinking, Thank God I live in America, the land of the free!

And you’d go back to getting caught up on the X-Files. Because hey, you live in the land of the free. What else can you do?

Mosey on down the road to one of Texas’ two “family detention centers,” for a start. They’re the facilities — don’t call them prisons — where immigration officials house asylum-seeking moms and kids fleeing violence in Central America and elsewhere.

Of course, you won’t get too far past the towering brick walls and armed guards. No, these places aren’t technically prisons; they’re just run by private prison contractors. You can’t just walk in, and the people inside sure as hell can’t just walk out. Just like in a jail or prison, journalists have to get permission to go inside, where they’re likely to be tailed by officials and flacks.

Over the last year and a half, according to the Austin American-Statesman, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has recommended docking the prison contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars for various violations inside these facilities. Stuff most parents probably wouldn’t cotton to in a day care. Think “nonfunctioning security cameras,” “running out of baby formula” and “unsanitary food service.”

Compliance with basic standards seems particularly important in light of the history of abuse and mistreatment at the T. Don Hutto facility, where officials stopped housing kids back in 2009 after human rights advocates took them to task over prison-like conditions.

And yet Texas health officials have announced plans to license these kinds of places as child care centers, because doing so will let the authorities skirt judicial rulings that prevent law enforcement from throwing kids in unlicensed facilities willy-nilly, seeing as how it’s sort of, you know, un-American to throw abused children in prisons.

It’s an idea so dystopian you’d have a hard time stomaching it in a science fiction novel, so naturally Texas is doing it. Governor Greg Abbott has even said that licensing these places as child care centers will protect “the health and safety” of the kids.

If that sounds like a hilariously bad justification built on flimsy reasoning and subterfuge, it’s because… it is. What licensing prisons as child care centers does, in reality, is give the federal government’s immigration apparatus the legal permission it needs to keep children detained.

Why else would state officials try to quietly create special prison child care licenses by sidestepping the normal administrative process, without holding any public hearings, as they did in 2015?

Thanks to the efforts of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit working to end immigrant detention, a judge blocked the state’s underhanded attempt at incarcerating kids. When the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was forced to put its decision up for public scrutiny, Abbott was just about the only guy who thought it sounded like a swell idea.

Dozens of legal experts, advocates and immigrants voiced their opposition to these child care licenses at meeting after meeting. And all for nothing, it seems.

If Texas doesn’t license these detention centers as child care facilities, it could be forced to shut them down entirely, something immigration advocates have long been calling on the Obama administration to do.

The alternative is, I guess, unfathomable to people who see scared kids — not coincidentally, kids of color — as threats to civil society. Who knows what these children might do if they’re allowed to wait out the asylum process in broad daylight. Play on a swing set? Build a sand castle? Set up — the horror — a lemonade stand?

One day, I hope we’ll look back at the way we treated these vulnerable families and be ashamed. We’ll be unable to fathom a society that put the concepts of “child care” and “detention centers” in the same sentence. That day can’t come soon enough.