Two privately run immigration detention centers in Texas will continue their normal operations despite a Travis County judge’s ruling last week that prevents the state from licensing the facilities as child care centers.
Late Friday, state District Judge Karin Crump ruled that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could not issue the licenses, which are needed to comply with a federal judge’s order issued last year. The centers are in Dilley and Karnes City and are operated by Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, respectively.
The companies are under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run the centers holding some of the tens of thousands of Central American women and children that have illegally crossed into Texas since 2014. The centers have been criticized by rights groups for allegedly operating more like prisons.
The Texas DFPS granted the GEO Group a license for its facility earlier this year. In a statement, a spokesperson said the company always adheres to current standards.
“Karnes has operated as Family Residential Center since August 2014 at ICE's request and has always been in compliance with ICE’s Family Residential standards. As an added oversight step, our company and ICE pursued the licensing of the center by the State of Texas,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “We strongly believe that state licensing is an important added step, which is in the best interests of the families entrusted to our care. At this time, we expect the Karnes Center to be unaffected and to continue to operate in compliance with ICE’s Family Residential standards.”
"Providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care is our top priority, and we work in close coordination with our on-site partners at ICE to ensure that goal is being met at the South Texas Family Residential Center on an hour-to-hour and day-to-day basis," said Jonathan Burns, spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America.
But the ruling would invalidate the company's license, said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrants rights group that filed the lawsuit.
In an email an ICE spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the ruling but said “operational activities continue without interruption.”
The Texas Attorney General’s office filed an appeal of the ruling on Monday but declined to give additional details about the case.
The licensing has been a critical step since July 2015 when U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere should be released because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 legal settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — that requires undocumented juveniles be held in centers that protect their overall health and safety. The licenses would provide for more oversight of the facilities, state officials said last year when they began the process.
Libal said he didn’t expect the facilities to clear out immediately after the ruling and expected an appeal. But he said the ruling will affect how the government and the companies move forward.
“The Flores settlement says that unlicensed and secure detention centers cannot detain children. I think that these facilities would be operating outside of that,” he said. “I know that’s a question for federal courts, but I’m happy that the court has reiterated what we’ve been saying and what’s basically common sense — that a prison is not a child care facility.”
As of Monday, there were 606 people held at the Karnes City center and 1,787 in Dilley, according to ICE.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified which company was granted a license. It was the GEO Group.