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Texas family detention centers violate federal law by holding families for too long

Family detention centers in Texas are violating federal law for holding minors in detention, reports the Associated Press.

 Some families have been detained in detention centers for more than six months, even after Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would license family detention centers as child care facilities. The passage of the bill would have opened the door for families to be detained for longer periods of time.

 Today, the AP reports that maximum time minors are supposed to be detained is 20 days, though many families are detained for much longer than that. Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, works with detained families and knows of at least seven families who have been held over the 20-day mark.

 Advocates against family detention say that 20-day stays violate federal law. A court ruling in 2015 said minors could not be detained for more than three days unless there are surges in immigration. Currently, the number of people crossing the border is at a low point.

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Texas Blocked From Giving Childcare License to South Texas Immigration Lockup

A judge in Austin ruled today that Texas officials cannot lower their standards for childcare facilities in order to license a privately owned and operated immigrant family lockup in the South Texas town of Dilley, according to the San Antonio Current.

250th District Judge Karin Crump decided to block the state licensing of the South Texas Family Residential Center in court today. The Obama administration has used the facility, more commonly known as the Dilley family detention camp, since 2014 to detain women and children who are in the U.S. seeking asylum. Crump focused on special exemptions that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services made for immigrant detention centers.

Immigrant rights advocates and others have said that the exemptions allow family detention centers to bypass many rules that exist for children's safety, including one which states that children are not to be housed with unrelated adults.

According to the Texas Tribune, Crump said "The exceptions allow and have allowed for situations for children that are dangerous. And this temporary injunction addresses those concerns."

This ruling comes at an interesting time for the Obama administration’s family detention policy. Obama’s administration is currently appealing a ruling by a federal judge in California ordering the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reform how it detains immigrant children. As previously reported, federal district Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled that current family detention policy was in violation of an 18-year-old settlement and that children could not be housed in unlicensed, prison-like facilities.

As for the family detention camp in Dilley, Denise Gilman, the director of the University of Texas' immigration law clinic, said that even if licensed, Dilley and a similar facility in Karnes County would not comply with Judge Gee’s ruling, which states that children must be housed in non-secure (not prison-like) facilities. "These are still detention centers, no matter how you look at them," she says.

The case will proceed to a full trial in September.

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Texas grants child care license to Karnes family detention center

On Friday April 29, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) granted a license to the Karnes County Residential Center, a federal detention center for mothers and children operated by for-profit prison corporation GEO Group.

The Department of Homeland Security has been pursuing state licenses for the family detention centers in Karnes and Dilley since a federal ruling in August mandated that the children be released within two months from the facilities because they violated the terms of the Flores settlement, which stipulates that children in custody of federal immigration officials may not be held in secure, unlicensed facilities.

Texas’ decision to license the Karnes family detention center was accompanied by an outcry from immigrant rights advocates, who have turned out in force at several public hearings to oppose granting child care licenses to the detention centers.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio legal services provider RAICES, told the New York Times, “If you want a child care facility, you don’t contract with a for-profit prison company.”

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, said that the temporary license is valid for six months. During this time, the agency will conduct three unannounced inspections of the detention center, and grant a permanent license if the facility meets required standards.

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Debate continues on controversial effort to license family detention centers as child-care facilities

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to license two federal family detention camps in the south Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley. In November 2015, Grassroots Leadership won an injunction that prohibited the state from passing an emergency rule to license the centers and mandated that the public be given an opportunity to comment on the licensing. At the public hearing held on December 9, more than 40 people testified against licensing including legal service providers, immigrant rights groups, faith leaders, and a former psychologist at the Karnes family detention camp. Over 1000 people also submitted written comments to TDFPS in opposition to the licensing.

At the time of the hearing, state officials including Governor Greg Abbott stated that the purpose of the licensing was to ensure the well-being of the children held at the Texas family detention centers. However, the state initiated its attempt to license the facilities after Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee issued a decision that these family detention camps violate multiple of the standards set by the Flores Settlement for the detention of children by federal immigration officials. One of these standards is that children must be held in licensed childcare facilities.

As the agency and advocates prepare for another licensing hearing on February 4, state officials now admit that the decision to pursue licensing of the facilities stems from this federal court decision. “The (judge’s) decision left Texas and the federal government with an option to regulate the facility, or have these illegal immigrants released into Texas communities without regard for the federal government’s immigration disposition process,” Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the American-Statesman. “The federal government therefore requested licensure to prevent this and Texas agreed.”

Grassroots Leadership says that state officials’ new position confirms that the well-being of immigrant children was not the motive for licensing. The organization’s Executive Director Bob Libal told the American-Statesman, “This is not about the welfare of children...This is a desperate attempt for the state to bail out the federal government’s immigrant detention regime.”

Negotiations extended in Flores settlement, which could impact family detention policy

Negotiations based on this 1997 settlement are still underway.
Negotiations based on this 1997 settlement are still underway.

Negotiations between immigrant rights and government attorneys have been extended for another week in what been known as "the Flores case" after parties were unable to reach an agreement based on Judge Dolly Gee's preliminary decision.

As previously reported, some advocates believe that this litigation could cause dramatic changes to, or even end, the government's current policy of detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children while their cases proceed through immigration courts.

The outcome of these negotiations could determine the future of three family detention facilities, which together have the capacity to detain more than 3,000 individuals. These include two for-profit facilities in Texas: the Karnes County Residential Center run by the GEO Group, and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley run by Corrections Corporation of America.

The new deadline set for reporting on the Flores Settlement negotiations is July 3.

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