Immigrant Families Sue to Stop Licensing Detention Centers for Child Care (Updated)

Update, May 5: 

An Austin judge has temporarily halted the state’s effort to license a Texas family detention center for child care, issuing a temporary restraining order that stops the state from licensing the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley until a full court hearing on May 13.

“Today, we are glad a judge has agreed to halt, at least temporarily, the appalling practice of labeling family prisons as childcare facilities,” said Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership executive director, in a press release. “Family detention camps are prisons. They are not childcare facilities.”

The restraining order does not affect the Karnes County Residential Center, which received its child care license on April 29.

Original story:

Two immigrant mothers, detained with their children in a privately-run Texas lock-up, have filed suit to stop Texas from licensing two family detention centers as child care providers.

On Friday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) issued a residential child care license to the Karnes County Residential Center, despite deficiencies uncovered by inspectors and months of opposition from immigrant rights activists, attorneys and child welfare advocates.

The Karnes County Residential Center is the first immigrant detention facility in Texas to be licensed as a child care provider.
The Karnes County Residential Center is the first immigrant detention facility in Texas to be licensed as a child care provider.  UUSC/Flickr/Creative Commons

On Tuesday, Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit opposed to private prisons, is also a plaintiff in the suit, which was filed in state court in Austin. Grassroots Leadership and the detained mothers have asked a judge to stop the licensure both of the Karnes facility and the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley. Together, the two facilities currently house about 1,800 immigrant mothers and children, many of whom are fleeing gang violence and persecution in Central America.

“By all reasonable measures, family detention camps are prisons. They are not child care facilities,” said Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s executive director, in a press release.

DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins told the Observer that the agency is “reviewing and consulting with the [Texas attorney general’s] office” regarding the lawsuit.

Last summer, a federal judge ordered the release of migrant children from family detention centers, citing “deplorable conditions” in violation of the 1997 Flores v. Meese agreement, which states that children should not be held in unlicensed facilities. In September, DFPS created a new licensure category for detention facilities in order to accommodate the federal requirements.

Anti-detention groups and immigration activists have argued that DFPS’ move to approve the detention facilities for childcare purposes is predominantly about enforcing federal immigration policy, not preserving child welfare.

“Changing an interpretation of Texas law to help federal immigration officials enforce harsh detention policies is disingenuous and detrimental to the health of children in Texas,” said Libal.

Grassroots Leadership, which has been fighting to end immigrant detention since 2006, has succeeded once in briefly halting the licensure. In November, the organization won a temporary injunction, arguing that DFPS was moving forward without public input. A Travis County judge sided with the organization and ruled that the state must have a public hearing before issuing licenses.

Since then, dozens of immigration and human rights activists have testified against the child care licenses at three public hearings, citing sexual abuse allegations, poor supervision of children and little to no medical and mental health care. Critics also submitted thousands of pages of comments to DFPS urging the agency to abandon the effort.

At DFPS, Crimmins said a residential child care license for the Dilley facility could be issued as early as this week.

According to an inspection report obtained by the Observer, DFPS inspectors found 12 deficiencies at the Dilley facility, ranging from worn walls and playground equipment, expired juice, improperly stored medication and supplies. The inspection report also cites an incident in which a child, allergic to gluten, was experiencing fever and vomiting after facility operators failed to provide alternative food or drinks. Crimmins said the facility is required to address the documented deficiencies before the state will issue a license.

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Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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