Texas is Trying to Give Childcare Licenses to Immigration Detention Centers

Immigration detention is harmful to children. That’s the resounding consensus from healthcare professionals, social workers, immigrant advocates, and more, as we document in our report, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging.

That’s why it was an important step forward when the state of Pennsylvania did not renew the license of the Berks County family detention center, and last year a federal judge found that the federal government’s family detention policy was not in compliance with a 1997 settlement agreement on handling immigrant children. The court ordered the administration to rapidly release the children and their parents from detention. Both decisions are on appeal.

But in Texas, the government is trying to find a way around those restrictions. As the New York Times reports, “Texas officials revised the state’s licensing rules, adding exceptions that allowed the Karnes center and another family detention center in Texas to qualify for child care permits.” The Karnes County Residential Center, run by the for-profit prison contractor GEO group, received its childcare license this week.

But in an encouraging development, an Austin judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Texas child protection authorities from implementing the new rules and licensing at Karnes or the other Texas family immigration detention center in Dilley. Grassroots Leadership is leading the challenge on the grounds that the state doesn’t have statutory authority to adopt a licensing rule for immigration detention centers that detain families.

It’s not a stretch to speculate that efforts to license these detention centers are driven by political considerations rather than concern for the wellbeing of the children and families locked up in such facilities. Texas Governor Greg Abbot openly spews anti-immigrant sentiments and is trying to end immigrant-friendly policies, such as sanctuary cities and President Obama’s programs for deportation relief under DACA/DAPA. He’s also a fan of building a wall along the Mexico border.

So vulnerable asylum seekers have become victims of our nation’s fight over immigration policy. Meanwhile, detention often exacerbates the effects of trauma asylum seekers have suffered in their home countries, and is detrimental to the physical and mental health of children. The continued operation of the Karnes facility is out of step with international human rights standards, as well as recommendations of child health professionals and other experts in child wellbeing and development.

Human Rights First recently released a summary of communications between some of the women detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania and ICE. The women expressed concerns about the physical and mental wellbeing of their children, and ICE responded by suggesting they abandon their claims for asylum and accept deportation. The problems cited by these mothers are typical of children held in family detention, including behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and increased aggression toward both parents and other children.

These prison-like facilities should not get the cover of official childcare licenses. Let’s hope that Grassroots Leadership’s challenge and similar state-level challenges in Pennsylvania will prevail, putting an end to family detention. The federal government should seek to protect vulnerable children and families from continued trauma, not deepen it.


Published on May 5, 2016


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