Last July, a U.S. District Judge ordered the release of immigrant children being held at three U.S. detention centers, two of which are in Texas – in Dilley and Karnes City. Judge Dolly Gee based her ruling on an 18-year-old settlement that stipulates how children detained crossing the border should be held. She concluded that the facilities were holding kids in “deplorable conditions” that she said “failed to meet even the minimal standard” for a safe and clean environment for children.
Faced with the dilemma of releasing the children, or placing them in a separate, state-licensed child welfare facility, the private prison companies asked Texas to license them. At first that seemed unlikely, because the centers didn’t meet the criteria for a childcare facility – until last week.
On Friday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) created a new category called “family residential centers,” the standards for which would allow for the centers in Karnes and Dilley to apply for state licenses.
University of Texas law professor Elissa Steglich, part of the school’s Immigration Law Clinic, says the “overwhelming voices of concern” against licensing at a December public hearing addressed the poor conditions in the facilities.
“These are and remain prison-like facilities where mothers are detained with their children,” she says.
Steglich says opponents argue licensing “will do nothing” to improve those conditions. DFPS’s new category of family residential centers is exempted from certain standards that other childcare facilities must meet, such as the number of individuals who can be housed in a single room.
“DFPS says that that is to accommodate families,” she says. “However, the reality is that there are multiple families placed in cells in these jails, which has led, in the past, to abuse issues and certainly gives rise to concerns of having non-relatives in with children.”
Facilities must apply for a license and DFPS says they must have a childcare administrator on staff, Steglich says, but an administrator does not a childcare facility make.
“There’s nothing really,” she says, “that’s going to transform these prisons into anything other than what they are.”
Texas Standard reached out the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. A spokesperson declined to comment for this story.