AUSTIN - Advocates for immigrants and children are fighting a proposal to allow federal detention centers to be licensed by the state as residential child-care facilities, saying Texas shouldn’t lend legitimacy to the operation. Read more about Immigrant advocates fight effort to license family detention centers as child-care facilities
Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp are urging Texas not to license federal immigration lockups as “child care” centers.
Officials with the Texas Department of Family Services heard some three hours of testimony Wednesday from more than 40 witnesses deeply troubled by the agency’s plan to create a whole new child care licensing category for two facilities that primarily detain asylum-seeking women and children. The compounds, built in the tiny, geographically isolated South Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley, are run by the same private prison behemoths that have seen profits soar with the rise in immigration enforcement and detention.
Such “family residential centers,” as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials call them, have come under fire not just by advocates but also by the courts. This summer, a federal judge in California ruled that the family lockups violate a longstanding legal settlement designed to keep the feds from ever again holding immigrant children in prison-like conditions. As the feds scrambled to comply with the judge’s ruling, Texas came in with the assist: state child protection officials would call it an “emergency,” fast-track the process of creating a whole new category for family detention centers and potentially license the facilities without even giving the public opportunity to vet or comment on the plan.
Immigrant rights advocates were appalled that Texas would try to save the distasteful practice of family detention. Child welfare experts, who contend the type of family detention employed by ICE is damaging to child development, were floored by the plan, saying Texas was lowering its child care standards to meet those of ICE.
Late last month, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, a state district judged ruled no such “emergency” existed and that the state couldn’t bypass the normal process. DFPS was forced to hold a public comment period. Read more about Experts Urge Texas Not to License Immigration Lockups As "Child Care" Centers
A watchdog group is suing the agency charged with protecting the state’s most vulnerable Texans, alleging the department fast-tracked a policy change that might help the federal government convince a federal judge to reverse her order shutting down two immigration detention centers in Texas.
The lawsuit by Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit group opposed to for-profit prisons, filed in a Travis County state district court, claims that by adopting an emergency rule in September, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services can issue temporary licenses to privately run detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley without publicly detailing how it will ensure the safety and well-being of the immigrants. Read more about Lawsuit Aims to Prevent Licensing of Detention Centers
Immigration officials have started shifting longtime detainees from family holding centers in South Texas to one in Pennsylvania, part of what activists say is a scramble before Friday’s deadline to comply with a judge’s ruling governing the treatment of immigrant children in custody. Read more about Activists: ICE scrambling to meet detention center deadline
filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Family Services, challenging its institution of the emergency rule without a full public-review process. Although allowing public comments might not have swayed the authorities, says Cristina Parker, the group’s director of immigration programs via email, “we certainly hope public outcry would have made a difference in their decision.”The civil-rights group Grassroots Leadership
The detained families are an even more muted part of the public outcry, walled off from the outside world, largely lacking any legal representation. But a group of mothers who were detained at Karnes for 11 months explained in an August letter to the president exactly what kinds of conditions their children required:
Read more about The Department of Homeland Security’s ‘Baby Jails’
This nation for us is our refuge and protection. We do not ask more than that and we urge you to end all detention. We must forge in our children healthy minds that are free from violence without having them go through the nightmare of being locked up for months.
One of the three facilities that detains immigrant families in the United States will not be allowed to expand and could lose its license to operate from the state of Pennsylvania -- a major win for the advocacy groups aiming to shut down family detention.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services sent a letter on Thursday to the director of Berks County Residential Center denying a request to double its capacity from 96 to 192. That is because the facility is being used to hold "only refugee immigrant families" when its license is for "child resident facilities," Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas wrote.
If the facility continues to serve families rather than children, the department will not renew its license when it expires in February 2016, Dallas added.
In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the family detention policy violated the 1997 Flores settlement, which says that undocumented children must be held in the least restrictive setting and immigration authorities should generally favor a policy of releasing them. The settlement prohibits detaining children for more than a few days in centers that are not licensed child care facilities.
After hearing a government response, Gee ordered the Obama administration in August to quickly release the children -- and in some instances, the mothers -- locked in family detention. She gave U.S. officials until Oct. 23 to show compliance.
In order to comply with the ruling, the private companies that run the two family detention centers in Texas -- Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group -- have applied to license the centers as child care facilities. The Texas Department of Child Protective Services issued an emergency rule last month to start the licensing process, but the Austin-based group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the private prison industry, filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping it. Read more about Pennsylvania Warns Family Immigrant Detention Center: Change Policies Or Lose Your License
Last Thursday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report admonishing government officials over the treatment of immigrants held at private prisons that contract with federal immigration authorities. Detailed in the report were a litany of alleged abuses at those detention centers, many of which are in Texas, from denying immigrants proper medical care to retaliation from prison staff and possible constitutional rights violations.
Yet on that very same day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new multimillion-dollar contract with one of the companies accused of holding immigrants in “inhumane” conditions that are “inconsistent with American values.” Advocates and immigration attorneys say they fear the new contract, for a pilot program to test a probation-like system for immigrant families released from lockup, only further expands the private prison industry's reach in the U.S. immigration system.
Perhaps the Geo contract, while troubling to advocates, shouldn't be entirely unexpected. Federal immigration officials have before ignored calls for ICE to wean itself off private prison companies. For instance, this 2009 report, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security and written by a former director of the federal Office of Detention Policy and Planning, concluded that immigrant detainees — many of whom have never committed a crime (immigration violations are civil, not criminal, cases) — shouldn't be treated like criminals and that ICE, not private prison companies, should operate its own detention centers to safeguard against abuses and ensure greater oversight.
Yet six years later, private prison corporations now house nearly half of the nation's immigrant detainees.
"It speaks to the power of this industry," says Bob Libal with the Austin-based civil rights group Grassroots Leadership. "Now, ICE is just giving these companies another way to profit off immigrants." Read more about ICE Awards Contract to Private Prison Company That Was Just Slammed in Federal Report
When I walked into my first day of work at Grassroots Leadership, Cristina had been there for at least an hour already working on the call-in campaign to get Sara and Nayely released from Karnes. She quickly explained to me what was going on and asked me to jump in where I felt comfortable. Just over a month later, we had planned the rally at Karnes and released the report on family detention. Even today, my last day, I feel like there is much to do and that this work will never be done. Read more about A YAV year in review
"A social worker formerly employed at a for-profit family immigrant detention center in Texas blew the whistle this week on the prison’s inhumane conditions—from solitary confinement to medical neglect—that she said amount to child abuse and torture.
The Karnes County Residential Center is operated by GEO Group—the second largest private prison company in the country that has faced numerous accusations of atrocities and civil rights violations. It is also the site of recent—and repeated—hunger strikes led by mothers incarcerated with their children, in protest of their conditions, detentions, and in many cases, their looming deportations.
Cristina Parker of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based organization that opposes prison profiteering, toldCommon Dreams that there are signs that the tide may be finally turning against these 'wrong, immoral, and traumatizing' prisons." Read more about Whistleblower Exposes Torture and Child Abuse at For-Profit Prison
"A federal court ruling against the U.S.’s family detention policy for undocumented immigrants could be the final blow to the Obama administration’s contentious practice after months of rising political pressure. But some of the advocates who pushed hard against family detention were hoping the heightened attention might provide a new opening to rally against conditions in the larger U.S. immigration detention system.
'The court ruling found detention illegal for women and children, but we hope that that will impact detention overall, and that people will start seeing there’s a systemic problem,' said Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based group that helped organize some of the high-profile protests against family detention in recent months.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee’s ruling, issued late Friday, found the Obama administration failed to meet the legal requirements in a 1997 settlement for housing undocumented immigrant children, adding that mothers and children in family detention centers stayed in “deplorable” conditions. The 25-page ruling ordered the families to be released. The federal government was given until August 3 to respond to the order, either by laying out a plan for releasing the remaining 1,700 undocumented immigrants in three family detention facilities -- in Karnes County, Texas, Dilley, Texas and Leesport, Pennsylvania -- or by explaining why it should not have to comply with the order." Read more about Immigration Reform: Backlash Against Family Detention Could Spark Momentum Against Detention System, Activists Say