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Activists decry Texas plan for immigrant detention facilities

Texas is moving forward with a controversial plan to continue housing hundreds of children and toddlers, along with their immigrant mothers who entered illegally into the United States, in detention facilities that have been criticized for a prison-like atmosphere and substandard conditions.

Last week, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services accepted public comments considering an emergency regulation that would allow the two immigrant family detention centers located south of Austin to become state-licensed child care facilities.

Currently there are more than 1,600 immigrant women and their children held at the two centers, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, according to recent data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These detention facilities, managed by private corporations, are two of the three family detention centers in the U.S. The third is located in Leesport, Pa.

Family and Protective Services officials say the initiative to regulate these detention facilities as child care centers aims to protect the children by adding a layer of oversight to ensure their safety. Opponents counter that continuing to house families at these centers could be harmful to the children, who are already suffering as detainees.

The proposed regulations are also being criticized because the state would allow significant exceptions to existing minimum standards, such as removing the limit on the number of children allowed to share a bedroom with an adult and the total number of children of opposite gender assigned to a room. This would create a “second class of children subject to a lower, disparate standard,” according to a letter sent Dec. 14 by eight state senators to Family and Protective Services.

Immigrant advocates also say the proposed regulations are a ploy by federal officials to feign compliance with a court ruling earlier this year that required them to stop detaining children in unlicensed and unsecure facilities.

The Texas family detention centers opened as part of the federal government’s response to an immigration crisis last year, when 68,445 women and their children were captured while entering illegally to the country, according to Border Patrol data. That represented a 361 percent increase over the prior year.

A federal immigration enforcement spokeswoman called the detention centers an “effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries.”

But advocates for the detainees say these facilities aren’t suitable to hold children.

Last week, dozens of opponents to Texas’ proposed regulations testified during a public hearing and urged officials to avoid licensing the facilities, which they called “prisons as child care centers.”

Former detainees, local activists, social workers and scholars described facilities in which children live behind high walls, get sick regularly, have no access to quality health care and experience various problems — conditions far from what Texas establishes as minimum standards for child care centers.

Being in detention, “even for short periods of time, is terrible for children’s health and well-being,” said Laura Guerra-Cardus, a policy director with the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund.

“Growing up in settings of ongoing stress interferes with children’s normal development, causing deep psychological stress as well as intellectual and cognitive impairments,” Guerra-Cardus said. “Reports from Karnes and Dilley show that children are suffering.”

Another opponent, New York-based attorney Bryan S. Johnson, who has defended former detainees, called the emergency rule that Family and Protective Services is trying to adopt a “total mockery” of the federal court ruling that ordered the release of women and children in July.

“The federal government is using everything in its power to try to keep these (centers) from being completely shut down,” said Johnson, who contends that housing children at the centers is a form of child abuse.

Texas officials say they are trying to help the children. “The objective in licensing the affected facilities is to ensure child safety and oversight by DFPS,” Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner John J. Specia said in an email.

“If (the) proposed rule is adopted, regulation from the Department of Family and Protective Services will add a layer of oversight to ensure the safety of the children,” explained Specia, who also said that his agency has no timeline to rule on this issue.

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