Austin, Texas — A corrections corporation that manages a family detention center for Immigration and Customs Enforcement received a child care license from the state of Texas in May, raising questions among attorneys and activists as to whether the company is trying to comply with a court ruling forbidding the detention of minor children in unlicensed facilities.
A second company is still awaiting approval for its license, according to Patrick Crimmins, media relations manager of the Texas Department of Family Protective Services, the department that oversees the licensing.
The applications were filed by the Corrections Corporation of America for the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and by GEO Group for the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. Both facilities, which house children typically accompanied by their mothers, paid a $35 application fee in addition to background check costs.
“Dilley got its Temporary Shelter Program (TSP) certificate on May 22 for a capacity of 24,” Crimmins said in an email. “On Karnes City, we just received their application June 2. The inspection is scheduled for June 16.”
The move to apply for licensing puzzled activists and attorneys who wondered if this is an attempt to comply with the 1997 Flores v. Meese Settlement Agreement that says unaccompanied minors may not be held in restrictive unlicensed facilities.
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“I think that they filed the applications first as a Band-Aid effort, as an attempt to be able to say that they’ve received some kind of licensing,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to immigrants. RAICES, which means “roots” in Spanish, stands for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Family detention had all but ended in 2009, but when large numbers of immigrants came across the southern border last year, overwhelmed immigration officials revived the practice. Attorneys for the U.S. government filed a motion in February to amend the Flores Settlement saying the influx of immigrants made it "impossible to mandate full and strict compliance with all terms of the nearly two decades-old agreement while expecting DHS to fulfill its core function of protecting the public safety and enforcing U.S. immigration laws."
Lawyers representing detainees countered by filing a motion to enforce the settlement leading to a tentative ruling in April by Judge Dolly Gee of the Ninth Circuit in Central California. "The court's tentative order indicated that the court agreed with plaintiffs that putting children in secure facilities that are not licensed by the state violated the language and spirit of the settlement agreement," said a memo outlining the ruling and circulated to attorneys and advocates representing detained clients.
Both sides in the case are now working out a plan to implement Gee’s ruling and are expected to complete the process by mid-June.
But corrections companies did not appear to be seeking a broad childcare license, rather one for a small subset of children in detention, according to the applications. The Corrections Corporation of America was granted a temporary shelter day care license in its Dilley center for the supervision of 24 children, Crimmins said. The license applies to children whose mothers need to attend court hearings or visit their doctors, according to the application. It does not mention extended overnight care.
“Neither Karnes nor Dilley have applied for a license from Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) — that is separate from a day care license,” Crimmins said. Residential treatment centers, emergency shelters or child-placing agencies are examples of the types of facilities that would fall under that type of license.
“I can tell you that in September 2014, Karnes submitted a request that they be exempt from residential child care licensing regulations, which we granted,” Crimmins said. It was unclear why the center in Karnes is exempt while the one in Dilley is not.
When asked about the license applications, both companies issued statements.
“CCA sought and obtained this licensure for the facility pursuant to the contractual requirements of our government partner, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” said Steve Owen, managing director of communication for Corrections Corporation of America.
“GEO has and will continue to work in conjunction with ICE to ensure that the Center adheres to all pertinent standards and requirements,” said Pablo Paez, vice president for corporate relations. Both companies referred further questions to ICE.
While ICE did not reply to requests for comment, in the past it has issued statements about the quality of its care for residents. "We are constantly assessing our ability to provide care for those in our custody that meets the highest standards, and we welcome the ongoing dialogue with stakeholders to ensure that we are transparent and consistent in our approach," said ICE press secretary Gillian M. Christensen.
Ryan and other advocates do not think this move satisfies the requirement set forth in the Flores Settlement Agreement.
“Flores speaks to the entirety of the custodial setting environment,” Ryan said referring to the 24/7 operation of family detention centers. “Cordoning off a small area within it that is deemed child appropriate by no means sanctions the remaining 99.9 percent of the facility.”
Michelle Mendez, training and legal support attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network thought it was more of a practical solution.
“It’s hard to tell why they’re moving forward with this, but it seems to be more beneficial for the staff than it does for the women and the children because fewer children in the courtroom is going to be easier on the staff; it’s going to be easier on the court that is presiding over the hearings for the judges.”
[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]