Texas has awarded a for-profit prison company a child care license, a move that could help the detention center get around a federal court order and detain undocumented immigrant women and their children.
The Texas Department of Family Protective Services issued the six-month initial license to the Karnes County Residential Center on Friday, angering immigrant rights advocates who have been critical of conditions inside the facilities, which have housed hundreds of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty back home.
The license bolsters efforts by the Obama administration and immigration officials to circumvent the decision of a federal judge in California who ruled minors couldn’t be held in facilities that weren’t licensed for child care. However, even if a facility obtained a license, the judge said the children would need to be held in nonsecure facilities that don’t physically restrict them from going outside the facility.
Last year’s ruling also ordered hundreds of women and children be released from three family detention centers, including the one at Karnes, Texas, citing “widespread and deplorable conditions.”
Jennifer D. Elzea, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in a statement that the license played an important role in maintaining the integrity of the immigration system.
“Licensure of the Karnes County Residential Center … represents an important step forward in ICE’s commitment to enhancing oversight and transparency of its family residential centers,” she said.
But critics say it amounts to an end-around a court decision meant to address deplorable conditions at detention centers.
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in San Antonio, called the license "concerning."
“We’re disappointed that this license was granted,” Ryan told BuzzFeed News. “It’s particularly concerning that the very department charged with protecting children has anointed this prison as suitable for the care of children.”
Complaints of physical and sexual assault have come out of the Karnes County Residential Center for years, Ryan said, as well as substandard medical and mental health care.
The belief that the license will make it easier for the state to ensure children are being taken care of is false, Ryan said, because the Texas Department of Family Protective Services has always been able to inspect the facility and has been aware of the complaints.
An inspection report obtained by BuzzFeed News found six deficiencies at the detention center. One noted that a child was left alone in a bedroom without their mother or staff member present. Another stated that one of two employees were not qualified.
Inspectors also found that records they reviewed didn’t have a child’s allergies and chronic health conditions on the outside of the file or “in a clearly visible location.”
The current license is only valid for six months, during which the Texas Department of Family Protective Services will conduct three unannounced inspections before granting GEO Group, which operates the facility, a permanent license.
Apart from the Karnes detention center, there are two other facilities that house women and children: one in Dilley, Texas, and another in Leesport, Pennsylvania. As of Tuesday, there were 1,905 women and children in ICE detention.
In January, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services told the Berks County Residential Center it was revoking the center's child residential facility license because the center was operating as a detention facility for immigrant families, including adults.
The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the facility in Dilley, has also applied for a license and could release its six-month initial license soon, said Mary Walker, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family Protective Services.
Those plans were temporarily put on hold Wednesday when a judge in Austin temporarily stopped Texas from issuing a childcare license to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
The judges order came after two mothers detained in Texas and Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based organization, asked a state court to issue a temporary injunction and temporary restraining order against an emergency rule that allowed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to license private groups operating family detention centers.
The filings are the latest part of a legal battle between immigrant advocacy groups and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The temporary restraining order lasts until May 13, when the court will hear Grassroots Leadership’s reasons for a temporary injunction that would indefinitely stop the emergency rule that gives allows Texas to give child care licenses for federal immigration detention centers.
The child care license could make it easier for the Obama administration and immigration officials to circumvent the decision of a federal judge in California who ruled minors couldn’t be held in facilities that weren’t licensed for child care, among other provisions. A previous version of this post incorrectly said the child care license would allow the Obama administration and immigration officials to go around the federal ruling.