AUSTIN, Texas — In a major victory for detained asylum seeking mothers and their children, an Austin judge Friday issued a final judgment effectively preventing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from issuing child care licenses to the nation’s two largest family detention centers — the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
Late Friday afternoon Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court invalidated the Texas regulation that allowed for the licensure of Karnes and Dilley. According to the court, the regulation allowing for licensing of family detention centers “contravenes Texas Human Resources Code § 42.002(4) and runs counter to the general objectives of the Texas Human Resources Code.” The regulation would have also authorized licensure without compliance with fundamental state minimum standards that ordinarily apply to child care facilities — including a standard prohibiting children from sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults.
Earlier this year Judge Crump issued a temporary order preventing the agency from licensing the Dilley facility, operated by private prison corporation Corrections Corporation of America, aka CoreCivic. (Before the case could be presented to the judge, the state agency had already issued a license to the Karnes facility, operated by private prison corporation GEO Group.) The judge’s final judgment effectively invalidates the Karnes license, because it was issued under an invalid regulation, and the judgment prevents the licensure of Dilley and other Texas facilities being planned. Combined, these facilities detain thousands of mothers and their children for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) each year.
“The conditions at Karnes and Dilley are equivalent to prisons, not childcare facilities,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a plaintiff in the case. “We are glad the court heard our concerns about the damage that family detention does to mothers and their children and how lowering standards to issue licenses to these facilities only exacerbates that harm. We now call on the Obama Administration to end the practice of detaining immigrant families once and for all.”
“The state’s executives admitted in documents and testimony that DFPS wanted to license these facilities to help the federal government, and not the children. Motive matters and we believe it was the key to the case,” said Jerry Wesevich, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who represents the plaintiffs in the case.
The plaintiffs — mothers detained with their children in Dilley and Karnes and Grassroots Leadership — argued that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is only granted authority to regulate child care facilities and that family jails are not child care facilities. The plaintiffs also said that family detention is harmful to children and that licensing the facilities under lowered standards would only increase the harm suffered by children.
During hearings in May and June, Judge Crump heard testimony from mothers detained at the facilities who testified to the prison-like conditions at the facility, and child welfare and faith leaders who argued that children locked up with their mothers in immigrant family detention camps are not safe, physically or mentally. One plaintiff alleged in court that her daughter had been spoken to and touched inappropriately by another unrelated detainee sharing their room at the Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas.
Those who testified in court included Emerson Fellow Barbara Hines, Dr. Luis Zayas, Dean of the UT-Austin School of Social Work, Dr. Laura Guerra-Cardus, Texas Associate Director of the Children’s Defense Fund–Texas, Immigration Attorney Jodi Goodwin, and Jennifer Carr Allmon, Executive Director of the Texas Catholic Conference. They all told the judge that licensing the family detention centers in Texas only further traumatizes children locked up with their mothers, who are all fleeing violence in Central America and seeking asylum in the U.S.
In addition to the damage to detained children’s physical and mental health, attorney Goodwin also testified that detention itself hindered a family’s ability to successfully present their asylum case in court. The plaintiffs also argued, based upon documents written by both prison companies, that the licensing the detention centers will lengthen the stay of the detention of these families in the federal lockups.
Additional documents and the evidence before the Court can be reviewed here.