The speakers trekked to the podium one after another, simultaneously lambasting and pleading with a panel of child protection officials weighing the fate of thousands of immigrant mothers and children in detention centers.
Why on earth, they demanded to know, would state officials even think about licensing these places as child care facilities?
“They are prisons, plain and simple,” said Antonio Diaz, an anti-detention center advocate with the Texas Indigenous Council. “They are prisons for profit.”
And so it went for four hours at the December public hearing on whether the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services should license and regulate two Texas facilities that house undocumented mothers and children. But that debate is coming to an end. The agency is expected to announce its decision in the next few weeks.
At stake is whether the Texas detention centers, built after the 2014 influx of Central American families and children into the state, will remain open for business.
Until now, state officials have insisted they have to license the detention centers for the sake of the children because they are “in imminent peril.”
But this week, state officials publicly said for the first time that the licensing move — which would reverse a decade-old stance — is about immigration control. They say they feel compelled to act because of a July decision by a federal court judge that banned federal authorities from housing children in facilities not licensed by state child welfare agencies.
“The (judge’s) decision left Texas and the federal government with an option to regulate the facility, or have these illegal immigrants released into Texas communities without regard for the federal government’s immigration disposition process,” Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the American-Statesman. “The federal government therefore requested licensure to prevent this and Texas agreed.”
Immigration advocates say the statement confirms what they’ve been saying all along.
“This is not about the welfare of children,” said Bob Libal with Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes the private prison industry. “This is a desperate attempt for the state to bail out the federal government’s immigrant detention regime.”
It’s not surprising that Latino mothers and children in Texas have taken center stage in the national brawl over immigration. For nearly two years, the federal government has been struggling to stem the tide of tens of thousands of Central and South America immigrants crossing the U.S. border. What is unexpected, however, is the way the battle lines have been drawn.
Texas officials have spent years suing the administration of President Barack Obama over immigration. Now they’ve sided with the administration. In a November letter to immigration advocates, the governor’s constituent communication division deputy director said Gov. Greg Abbott supports licensing.
“While we appreciate you sharing your perspective, Governor Abbott’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of these children will not be deterred,” Dede Keith wrote.
Immigrant rights advocates, whose child protection bent might suggest they’d want more oversight, oppose state licensing. They say regulating “baby jails” would help keep them open and are pushing for the families to be released into Texas communities.
Immigration opponents agree that the centers should be closed, but so the detainees can be deported, not released.
“This is really a crazy twist to this whole phenomenon of the surge of illegal arrivals from Central America and what is, in my opinion, a huge mismanagement of the problem by the Obama administration,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
A humane solution?
Family detention centers are locked facilities that can house as many as 3,300 immigrant women and children who have been deemed nonviolent and noncriminal. Two are in Texas: the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, which can house up to 2,400 people, and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, which can hold up to 830. A third family detention center is in Berks, Pa., which has 96 beds and has been open since 2001.
Most families in these centers are asylum seekers from Central or South American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala fleeing drug and gang violence. Families generally stay at the centers for three weeks before they are released with ankle monitors to await their immigration proceedings, though advocates say some have remained there several months.
Texas’ first foray into family detention centers came when Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor in 2006. The 500-bed facility for mothers and children was run by Corrections Corporation of America.
It seemed like the kind of operation the Department of Family and Protective Services would keep a close eye on. Typically the agency regulates 24-hour residential operations that house children, such as emergency shelters and homes for troubled children. The state inspects the buildings, scrutinizes whether staffers are properly caring for the children and investigates abuse and neglect claims.
But the state decided to exempt the T. Don Hutto operation, saying in a letter that the center didn’t have to be licensed because, among other things, the children were to be accompanied by their parents at all times.
The T. Don Hutto facility soon came under attack for its prison-like environment in which children were dressed in prison clothes, kept in small cells for about 11 or 12 hours each day and banned from keeping food and toys in their cells.
A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union led to reforms, and the facility stopped housing families in 2009.
Then, in 2014, as border crossings spiked in the Rio Grande Valley, ICE selected two for-profit prison companies to operate two more family detention centers. Geo Group was tapped to run the Karnes facility; Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, which ran the Hutto detention center, was selected to operate the Dilley center.
Again, the Department of Family and Protective Services decided not to oversee the facilities, saying that they didn’t need licenses because they weren’t child care facilities.
Federally contracted inspectors say both the Texas centers appear to be operating effectively. But they have also faced challenges.
Over the last 18 months, ICE inspectors have recommended docking Geo Group hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for violations at the Karnes center, such as nonfunctioning security cameras, a failure to provide interpreters for all detainees and repeated safety concerns about the company’s nearby construction, according to documents obtained by the Statesman. ICE has also pointed out problems such as running out of baby formula, failing to ensure small children are always with their mothers and operating an unsanitary food service program.
Ultimately, after “productive conversations,” Geo wasn’t fined, ICE officials say.
Geo spokesman Pablo Paez emphasized that the inspection records provided to the Statesman represent only a portion of the many standards it must meet. The center earned a perfect score at its most recent American Correctional Association accreditation audit, he said.
“The Karnes County Residential Center provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family-friendly environment, and onsite (ICE) personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE’s Family Residential Standards,” Paez said. “Our company has consistently, strongly denied allegations to the contrary.”
CCA has struggled with some issues as well, including overcrowding at its medical clinic and problems with wasps, but federal inspection records obtained by the Statesman indicate inspectors have identified few critical problems. Despite that, CCA has faced criticism from detainees and advocates who say medical care is so poor that children have been rushed to the hospital after their physical conditions were neglected.
“Family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries,” ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said. “ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, mental health care, play rooms, social workers, educational services and facilitate access to legal counsel.”
What’s Obama’s endgame?
After the facilities opened, state officials realized that detention center employees were babysitting children while their mothers attended court hearings and other meetings. Officials decided that counted as child care and certified several rooms at each facility as day care operations, which would allow the agency to investigate complaints about activities in those rooms. (There have been no complaints or investigations, the state says.)
But the state’s authority stopped there. The state didn’t seek to license the entire centers, as it is seeking to do now.
That move came after a July 2015 decision by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who ruled that ICE was breaking the terms of a 1997 lawsuit settlement that required immigrant children to live in the least-restrictive settings and to be removed from detention centers as quickly as possible. If they could not, the children were to be housed in nonsecure facilities licensed by state agencies responsible for child welfare.
Gee didn’t order Texas to license the existing federal facilities. In fact, she didn’t order the state to do anything, because it wasn’t a party in the lawsuit.
But less than two months later, the Department of Family and Protective Services passed a temporary emergency rule allowing the state to license and regulate the detention centers as residential child care operations. The ruling “highlights a gap in the oversight of the children,” state officials wrote in a September document justifying the new efforts to license the facilities.
The state said it needed to quickly pass the rule without public comment because there was “imminent peril to the public’s health, safety, or welfare.”
Grassroots Leadership, claiming the state’s action was a ruse to keep the centers open, immediately filed a lawsuit to halt the move, telling state District Judge Karin Crump that there was no emergency. She agreed. That forced the state to go through a public process.
The question of what happens next has a complicated answer.
If Texas chooses not to license the facilities, they could be forced to close down. That possibility gives Abbott leverage to force the quicker removal of immigrants, said Vaughan, the immigration analyst. If Abbott chooses to “bail out” ICE, he should pressure the Obama administration to get undocumented immigrants out of the country faster by speeding up the asylum review process, she said.
“This is such a huge mess for the administration now that they would have to take such a request seriously,” Vaughan said.
But advocates say sending families back to their home countries is tantamount to a death sentence.
“These are women and children fleeing some of the most violent circumstances in the world,” said Denise Gilman, director of the UT Law School Immigration Clinic. “They need help.”
An in-depth look at the work of two UT immigration attorneys who have helped arrange free legal representation for thousands of Central American families detained by U.S. authorities as they flee violence in their home countries.