Court: Immigrant Detention Is Child Care

3rd Court of Appeals dismisses suit that challenged “family residential centers” that meet only minimal child welfare standards

Court: Immigrant Detention Is Child Care

State officials who seek to minimize the standards protecting undocumented mothers and children in immigrant detention centers got their way last Wednesday, Nov. 28, when the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals dumped a lawsuit that challenged their scheme to license two unregulated facilities in South Texas.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had for years refused to certify the two centers – the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City – as child care providers, saying they didn't meet state standards. After the flow of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America intensified beginning in 2014, the agency decided to help the centers – both among the country's largest and operated by private, for-profit firms (CoreCivic and GEO Group) – skirt the requirements of federal court rulings governing the detention of minors. Instead, DFPS adopted an emergency rule in 2015 that dubbed them "family residential centers" – a euphemism that belies their poor conditions – and only mandated minimal state standards for child welfare ("Child Care Center or Baby Jail?" March 18, 2016).

That rule hasn't been implemented because immigration advocacy group Grassroots Lead­ership filed suit in Travis County to block it, and in 2016 state District Judge Karin Crump issued an injunction against DFPS. ("Detention Is Not Child Care," Dec. 9, 2016). Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed that ruling shortly afterward.

Now, thanks to the 3rd Court of Appeals, that injunction has been reversed. Judges concluded that Grassroots didn't have standing to challenge the rule because they couldn't demonstrate that undocumented immigrants would face threatening conditions or be held for longer time periods if the rule were in effect. "[T]he length a child is detained – and the alleged harm resulting from longer detention periods allegedly made possible by licensure of the FRCs – is not fairly traceable to the FRC Rule and [DFPS]," wrote 3rd COA Justice David Puryear. "Rather, the length of detention is traceable to federal immigration policy."

Paxton unsurprisingly lauded the decision, saying it "helps ensure the safety and well-being of children." Immigrant rights activists think the opposite; the tighter child care regulations that should be in effect (under both state law and federal court rulings) include limits on the number of occupants in a room, on children sharing rooms with unrelated adults, and on children of different genders sharing rooms.

"We are obviously disappointed and horrified by this decision," said Bob Libal of Grassroots. "Licensing of these facilities hurts children. Texas agencies refused to license these facilities for years, and only did so under pressure from ICE. Now children will be hurt, and the courts say they can't be involved."

What won't be hurt are the profits of CoreCivic (the former Corrections Corporation of America, a well-known bad actor in this arena) and GEO Group, which stand to gain from more and longer detentions. "The only ones who may benefit from this ruling are the private prison companies which make millions off their massive baby jails," said Libal. "We are committed to continuing this fight in the courts, in the legislature, and by fighting alongside families in these notorious detention centers until they are released."

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