In a controversial move, Texas has awarded the Karnes County Residential Center a temporary child-care license, which lets the facility to get around a federal court order that would otherwise prevent it from detaining undocumented women and their children.
The court order in question came last year when a federal judge determined that children weren't permitted to stay at the facilities because they weren't licensed. However, the judge noted that even if a license was obtained, the children would be required to be held in nonsecure facilities that don't physically restrict them from going outside the facility.
It appears as though Karnes County Residential Center took that ruling to heart and made the necessary steps to receive the license from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services last week, even as the federal government was in the midst of a debate over whether the facility would be allowed to continue operations.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was quite pleased with the development, with spokeswoman Jennifer D. Elzea saying that the license will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the immigration system.
"Licensure of the Karnes County Residential Center ... represents an important step forward in ICE's commitment to enhancing oversight and transparency of its family residential centers," she said.
However, while ICE lauded the decision, immigrants rights advocates who have long been critical of conditions inside the facilities were quite angered. In fact, one non-profit organization, Grassroots Leadership, has opted to sue the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services over it.
"We think both that it is inappropriate and wrong for the state agency to license prisons as childcare facilities," said Bob Libal, executive director of the organization. "They're saying these are child facilities now, after more than a decade of saying that there weren't child care facilities in the detention centers, essentially to help the federal government avoid a lawsuit and to help the federal government enforce harsh immigration policies against children and their moms."
Meanwhile, Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), said the news of the childcare licenses "came as a disappointment, but unfortunately not a surprise."
"The public voice has been strong against these prisons and against licensing them as childcare facilities, yet the march of the government was steady in the direction of licensing from the get-go," Ryan said.
While the suit is underway, the Karnes facility is moving forward with plans to ensure that it is up to snuff. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services will conduct at least three unannounced inspections, and the center must address any problems noted on these visits. Only when these issues are addressed will the center receive a permanent child care license.