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Judge Stops Licensing of Detention Center as Child-Care Facility—For Now

Tina Vasquez

“[The Obama administration] should not make a major piece of its immigration legacy the largest trend in locking up families since Japanese internment," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. "I think President Obama has the power to stop doing this and his administration should stop families from being locked up in for-profit prison camps.”

A Texas judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from issuing a child-care license under lowered standards to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

The injunction, requested by the group Grassroots Leadership and issued by Judge Karin Crump, was considered a major win by advocates, who have been embroiled in a legal battle with the state over the licensing of the country’s only family detention centers for nearly nine months.

DFPS in September began keeping Texas’ family detention centers open by creating a new child-care licensing category for family detention centers, as Rewire reported. Grassroots Leadership won a temporary injunction in November to stop DFPS from licensing the Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Family Residential Center as child-care facilities under an emergency rule that would have eliminated minimum child safety standards applicable to all child-care facilities in Texas.

The injunction forced the detention centers to go through the traditional licensing procedure, allowing public and advocacy organizations to offer feedback. However, in February, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission approved a rule to reduce child-care standards, permitting the Karnes and Dilley facilities to move forward with the licensing process. DFPS on April 29 quietly granted Karnes County Residential Center its license to operate as a child-care facility.

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Grassroots Leadership, along with two formerly-detained mothers who spent time in the detention center with their children, filed for the injunction May 3.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire in a phone interview that the temporary injunction doesn’t impact the Karnes facility’s license—it simply prohibits the state from issuing a license to the Dilley facility until the final hearing, set to take place in September. The September hearing will address what Libal considers “the underlying issue,” which he says is the state-adopted rule that allows it to issue child-care licensing to prisons.

If the rule is invalidated, the Karnes license would be invalidated as well.

“Yesterday’s hearing is a good sign,” Libal said. “The court accepted our argument that detention is harmful to children and their moms and that slapping a license on a family detention facility doesn’t make it any better. Putting a license on these facilities doesn’t do anything to help the children; it actually lowers the standards and may lengthen the stay of detention, which was one of our pieces of evidence.”

Libal is referring to a recent shareholders call held by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private, for-profit prison company that runs Dilley. CCA executives attributed major increases in revenue to the Dilley detention center. The GEO Group, the country’s second largest private, for-profit prison corporation, runs Karnes and during its recent SEC filings, Libal said the corporation expressed its goal of detaining mothers and children for even longer periods of time now that it has a child-care license in place.

The 1997 Flores v. Meese agreement made it a requirement for detention centers to be licensed in order to detain children.

Libal said Grassroots Leadership and other advocates fighting family detention are operating from the premise that children and their mothers should not be locked up in prisons. While the state of Texas asserts it’s doing what is in the best interest of the children, Libal told Rewire it’s merely about getting around federal litigation so that private prison corporations can continue to profit from immigrant communities.

“The federal government is simply trying to get around the federal litigation that is the Flores agreement,” he said. “This has been shown time and time again in court. This has very little to do with child welfare standards and everything to do with allowing the federal government and private prison corporations to follow policies that by all accounts hurt children.”

It is possible that the state can appeal Grassroots Leadership’s injunction, but until the September hearing, the organization plans to continue fighting family detention and pushing the Obama administration to stop the imprisoning of immigrant mothers and their young children.

“We’re approaching the end of the Obama administration and I really believe this should be a legacy issue for the administration,” Libal said. “[The administration] should not make a major piece of its immigration legacy the largest trend in locking up families since Japanese internment. I think President Obama has the power to stop doing this and his administration should stop families from being locked up in for-profit prison camps.”

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