The state of Texas can't claim an emergency to quickly grant licenses for two private detention centers holding undocumented immigrant families for the federal government, a state district judge has ruled.
The ruling last week by state District Judge Karin Crump of Travis County handed a victory to a watchdog group pursuing better conditions for the roughly 2,000 undocumented women and children being held after arriving during the surge of unauthorized migration last summer in the Rio Grande Valley.
In September, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services posted notice that it would issue the detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley licenses as residential centers under emergency rules that don't allow for public comment.
The agency's move came after a federal district judge ruled in July that the government was holding the undocumented immigrants in “deplorable” conditions, violating a provision of a 1997 settlement called the Flores v. Meese agreement. That settlement requires that undocumented children be held in places that protect their overall well being.
The government has appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In October, Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership filed suit claiming that the state's rush would allow it to license the centers without publicly detailing how it would ensure the health and well-being of the immigrants detained within their walls.
Crump agreed, saying in her ruling that the agency must go through its regular process and allow public comments on its efforts to license the centers. Crump ruled “no imminent peril to public health, safety or welfare exists” justifying that emergency action. She said the defendants, including the Texas Health and Human Services Department, “utilized the emergency rule power for administrative purposes rather than to address a true emergency.”
The Geo Group operates the center in Karnes City, and Corrections Corporations of America operates the facility in Dilley, under contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In an email, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said the agency is not in a position to comment on pending litigation
But she said that the Department of Homeland Security has worked diligently to ensure "compliance with all aspects of the [federal] Court’s Order” issued in July.
The health commission deferred comment to the family services agency, whose spokesman said the agency is aware of the ruling and had no further comment.
When the lawsuit was filed last month, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins cited an agency fact sheet that stated: “The court determined that while detained by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], families must be in state-licensed facilities to provide ‘essential protection of regular and comprehensive oversight by an independent child welfare agency.' Although the ruling did not require DFPS to license the facilities, it did highlight a gap in the oversight of the children at these types of facilities. The new DFPS rule closes that gap by requiring state licensing.”
In her ruling however, Crump said that the emergency ruling would have exempted the centers from rules limiting room occupancy and governing whether children can share a room with unrelated adults or children of the opposite sex.
While the ruling doesn’t prevent the agency from moving forward with the licensing procedures, it allows opponents the opportunity to have their concerns with the process officially noted.
“It makes the state abide by its own laws and actually have hearings and go through the process,” said Grassroots Leadership Executive Director Bob Libal. “We submitted a letter [in opposition] with 140 organizations and child care [advocates] and never got a response.”
Crump said in her ruling the emergency rule allows for “less oversight” of family residential centers than the state's current minimum standards for residential operations. But Libal said he feared the regular licensing method would also lower the standards of care, which public comment would help address.
“I think there is a lot of opportunity to show these facilities can’t meet the standard even though it is a lower standard,” he said. “I would love it if formerly detained people got to speak on this. If the goal is to ensure the safety of the children, you don’t put the Texas seal of approval on these facilities.”