After more than a year of court proceedings, a judge in Texas issued a final judgment late Friday afternoon, preventing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from issuing child-care licenses to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. Almost immediately, advocates reported to Rewire, there was a “mass release” of approximately 460 women and children from these facilities.
“We have never seen releases on this scale for family detention,” Amy Fischer, policy director at the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told Rewire in a phone interview. RAICES provides pro-bono legal aid to women detained in Karnes and Dilley, and operates a local shelter for those who have been released from detention and are waiting to be reunited with their sponsors and family members.
In a statement to Rewire, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that it is “currently reviewing the court’s ruling,” but the mass releases were “scheduled as a part of normal operations and not in response to the court ruling.”
Although ICE claimed the two events were unrelated, Cristina Parker—the immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against DFPS—said the mass release of women and children from these facilities is likely because of Friday’s judgment. The licensing would have allowed both family detention centers to operate as child-care facilities “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,” according to a Grassroots Leadership press release.
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Earlier this year, DFPS granted a license to Karnes allowing the family detention center to operate as a child-care facility. The facility, which is run by GEO Group, a private prison company notorious for claims of human rights abuses, has seen “widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment,” according to RAICES. Shortly after, Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court, the same judge behind Friday’s ruling, issued a temporary order preventing DFPS from licensing Dilley as a child-care facility.
Friday’s judgment means that Karnes’ license is invalidated and that Dilley cannot become licensed as a child-care facility, nor can any future family detention center in the state.
The release of asylum seekers began on Saturday, according to Fischer, less than 24 hours after the ruling. RAICES helped find shelter for 260 women and children from Karnes and Dilley on Sunday, with more expected to be released Monday.
“Our shelter completely filled up on Saturday; we were not anticipating this,” Fischer said. As a result, RAICES partnered with a local church, using the church building itself as housing, with women and children sleeping in hallways. Local nuns took about 50 asylum seekers back to their convent for shelter, she added.
“Nothing about this is normal. Getting families released to our shelter is normal—they’re in family detention, they pass their credible fear interview, and they get released to us. At our highest ever, we maybe had 100 women and children at one time. This is unprecedented; this is four times our highest amount and many of those being released haven’t yet had their credible fear interviews,” Fischer said.
Outside of Dilley and Karnes, there is only one other family detention center in the United States—Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center—and it has been operating without a child-care license since February as it appeals the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to close the facility. Housing children in an unlicensed facility violates the 1997 Flores agreement.
“Berks is a perfect example of the government not following its own regulations,” Parker said. “This is a family detention center operating without a license, in violation of a federal ruling, and the government still hasn’t closed it. When it comes to the government, it doesn’t matter what the court order says, they will do as they please—and that’s not just my interpretation of it. Ask any attorney working around family detention.”
The ruling in Texas has no bearing on Berks, where asylum-seeking women and children have been detained for a year or more.
Both Fischer and Parker say they believe it’s possible that the mass release of women and children from Karnes and Dilley could indicate something larger than the detention facilities simply complying with the judge’s ruling. It could be an indication that President Obama will end family detention before he leaves office.
“The Obama administration has been fighting tooth and nail for their ability to hold on to family detention, and I think it’s become harder and harder for them to defend this practice that has garnered incredible criticism, even from people in their own party,” Fischer said. “The licensing decision may be the straw that broke the camel’s back, making [the administration] realize this is something they can no longer do.”
“We are really pleased with the judgment, but we want to see the end of family detention,” Parker added. “We’ve been pushing the Obama administration for two years now, but with the upcoming administration and everything we know about it, it’s unconscionable that President Obama would hand over the keys of this system to [President-elect Donald Trump]. These are women and children who have fled violence and have been imprisoned; the don’t need to be in detention to see and experience whatever a Trump administration would do.”