A Travis County judge ruled Wednesday that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cannot license an immigration detention center as a childcare facility, giving immigrant rights groups a victory in a months-long battle with the state.
State District Judge Karin Crump said her injunction was needed to protect the women and children being held in the 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas. Crump said current licensing exceptions allow mixed gender detainees to room together and in some cases, force children to share quarters with adult strangers.
“The exceptions allow and have allowed for situations for children that are dangerous,” she said. “And this temporary injunction addresses those concerns.”
The case will proceed to a full trial in September when the court will hear arguments over whether the state agency can issue the licenses based on an emergency rule it adopted last year. Crump added that in her opinion, the agency didn’t have the legislative authority to do so. Opponents argue that the licensing requirements are watered-down versions of what other centers must abide by and make the detention centers less safe.
The facility in Dilley, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, is one of two privately run detention centers in Texas under contract with the federal government to hold undocumented immigrant women and children. The other unit, in Karnes City, is operated by the Geo Group. The Karnes City unit can hold about 600 people and has already been issued a state license.
The effort to stop the licensing is being led by Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit immigrant rights group that sued the family services agency and alleged it had no authority to license a detention center as a childcare facility when the centers act more like jails than daycare centers.
Grassroots Leadership has also argued the state is only interested in moving forward with the licensing to comply with an order a federal judge issued last year.
In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere be released as soon as possible because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 legal settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — requiring that undocumented juveniles be held in the places that protect their overall health and safety. In that ruling, Gee declared conditions in the detention centers “deplorable.” That case is being appealed in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I think that what we heard over the last few weeks and what we’ve known is that the reason for the licenses was not about the protection of children but was about helping the federal government enforce this harsh immigration regime,” Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said after the hearing.
Crump’s decision Wednesday came after hours of testimony during which expert witnesses told the court that detaining children for long periods was detrimental to their health.
“They are under considerable fear and deprivation,” said Luis H. Zayas, the dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. “They are dealing with constant stress and hyper vigilance about what’s going to happen to them.”
Todd Disher, the assistant attorney general who represented the agency, referred all comments to the attorney general’s office. But during Wednesday’s proceedings, he told Crump that by licensing the facilities, the state would allow its own agents to keep tabs on the officials at the detention facilities.
"If you can’t issue them a license, you can’t regulate them,” he said. “Who better to police compliance, the facility itself or DFPS?” he asked the court.