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Texas Judge Refuses To License Child Care Facility In Immigrant Detention Center

Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, in Karnes City, Texas, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border.
Eric Gay
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, in Karnes City, Texas, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border.

The federal government's controversial immigrant family detention camps in south Texas are back in court.

A Texas state judge has blocked a state agency from licensing the childcare facility inside a mammoth, 2,400-bed private lock-up. The detention facility was opened to temporarily confine undocumented mothers and children who have been surging across the Texas-Mexico border fleeing dangerous conditions in Central America.

Immigrant advocates and detainees have complained bitterly that these family detention facilities are nothing more than prisons with dormitories and soccer fields. The Dept. of Homeland Security contends the secure facilities are family-friendly, and their existence is necessary to put teeth into America's immigration laws.

The latest development made headlines late last week when the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services quietly granted a childcare license to the Karnes County Residential Center, run by The GEO Group Inc.

An Austin-based advocacy group, Grassroots Leadership, quickly sued.

"Our contention is that the agency does not have the authority to license prisons as children-care facilities, and these family detention camps are prisons," says Bob Libal, executive director of the organization.

On Wednesday, the state judge granted a temporary restraining order that prevents the state agency from granting another license to a second, larger family detention center. The South Texas Family Residential Center is run by Corrections Corp. of America.

The judge will hear arguments next week.

The detention centers are run by for-profit prison companies and contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Last year, a federal judge in California ruled that confinement conditions for the detained kids were so bad that they violate an earlier settlement that requires the federal government to treat immigrant children with special care. The judge ordered the Obama Administration to start releasing detained families, in part because the childcare facilities inside the jails are unlicensed. ICE then requested Texas to step in and license the detention centers' playrooms as a way to comply with the judge's ruling and keep the facilities open.

In court filings, the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services asserts that it does have authority to regulate what happens inside ICE's "family residential centers," as they are called. We seek "not to solve the problem of family detention," state attorneys wrote, "but rather to provide protective oversight for children."

If the judge in Austin agrees with immigrant activists and tells the state it should stay out of ICE's immigrant jails, it's uncertain what the federal government would do next. As a way to comply with the federal court order,

ICE says it has been speeding up the release of mothers by strapping on electronic ankle monitors — many are confined for less than a month now. Yet the Karnes and Dilley detention centers — both situated close to the Mexican border — are considered important holding centers for undocumented families, and there is no indication the federal government plans to shutter them.

An ICE official wrote in an email, "While the [state judge's] order temporarily prohibits Texas authorities from issuing additional licenses, we remain committed to the appropriate treatment of all individuals in our custody, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure compliance with all requirements for licensed facilities."

A spokesman for the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services declined to comment because of pending litigation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.