Emotional Testimony Targets Plan to License Detention Centers

As state officials consider licensing two private detention facilities as approved residential centers for undocumented children, they heard several hours of testimony in opposition to the move Wednesday.

Advocates and community members attended a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services hearing on Dec. 9, 2015, to speak out against Texas licensing immigrant detention centers as child-care facilities.

Walking earlier this year into the South Texas Family Residential Center, a detention center for undocumented women and children, Satsuki Ina was reminded of her own early childhood — which she spent in internment camps for Japanese Americans.

Testifying in front of officials from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services on Wednesday, Ina, a psychotherapist, said she was horrified by the conditions she saw at the Dilley, Texas, facility during her tour. Ina was born in an internment camp in California during World War II, and was later transferred to a different camp in Crystal City, Texas, where she lived until she was 3.

“As a Japanese American, and as a former victim of the trauma of unjust and indeterminate incarceration, I am appalled by the possibility that the state of Texas would consider exempting the two facilities that currently house thousands of children from basic regulations deemed essential for care and welfare,” Ina said at the hearing. "I was deeply disturbed by what I witnessed and heard from the children and their mothers during my visit."

Ina was one of several people who provided emotional testimony to agency officials during a four-hour hearing Wednesday in Austin. Witnesses said that children were expected to sleep in rooms with other families and left alone with guards for hours at a time, for example. The hearing was part of the administrative process the agency is going through as it considers approving two private detention facilities, run in cooperation with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as licensed residential centers for undocumented children.

Although the centers currently house roughly 2,000 women and children, who arrived during a surge of unauthorized migration last summer in the Rio Grande Valley, a federal district judge ruled this year that the children are being held in "deplorable" conditions, violating provisions established by a 1997 agreement called Flores v. Meese. While that case works its way through the federal court system, Family and Protective Services officials announced in September that they wanted to license the two detention centers, in Karnes City and Dilley, under the agency's purview. According to state officials, this would allow more oversight of the conditions of the children in detention.

The department originally moved to issue the licenses under emergency procedures, bypassing typical requirements that members of the public be given the opportunity to weigh in. Last month, state District Judge Karin Crump of Travis County ruled that the emergency procedures weren’t justified, and said the state would have to go through normal procedures for licensing the facilities — including opening the floor to public comment, which they did Wednesday in Austin.

Although Family and Protective Services officials are charged with making sure children are in conditions where they can thrive, the children in the detention centers are actually regressing, according to Greg Hansch, public policy director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas. Several of the the people who testified Wednesday focused on the adverse impact of the detention centers on children’s psychology and said the children were also losing weight and shedding hair at alarming rates.

“Both mothers and children in these facilities commonly show symptoms of anxiety, depression, and feelings of despair,” Hansch said. “It is not child care when children are not only being blocked from achieving normal milestones but are also experiencing regression in their developmental pathway.”

Placing the detention centers under Family and Protective Services regulation would “close a gap” in the oversight of children being detained — potentially resolving some of the concerns mentioned in testimony, according to Paul Morris, the agency's assistant commissioner for child care licensing. If the two facilities were regulated by the agency, they would be required to meet standards “designed to ensure the safety and welfare of children,” he said.

“My staff would make periodic inspections of the facilities,” Morris told the crowd. “They would investigate any allegations of abuse and neglect and any other alleged violations of minimum standards.”

Virginia Raymond, an Austin-based immigration attorney, said she was skeptical of Morris’ assertion that minimum standards could be met — the detention centers just don’t come close to anything resembling child-care facilities, she said.

“It’s an insult to child-care workers, and it’s an insult to the common sense of the people of Texas, to call detention centers child care,” she said.

Ina, the internment camp survivor, added that she was perturbed by what she called "euphemistic language" that the agency uses when talking about the detention centers. Like those centers, internment camps were also “named relocation centers and family camps in order to mask the truth of our circumstances,” she said.