In 2014, an unprecedented surge of migrant families from Central America crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Although detention centers had been used long before this, that year the Obama administration made them key to its immigration policy. Dilley was built that year, and Karnes was greatly expanded. Immigration advocates fought back, and last year in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, Judge Dolly Gee made a ruling that helped their case. In her decision last July, the judge said the centers were in “deplorable” condition, and that they failed to meet even minimal standards. Gee pointed to a 1997 ruling that determined the government cannot treat a child in detention as it would an adult. She ordered the Obama administration to release the migrant kids from both Texas centers.
That didn’t happen. The Obama administration appealed, and for the past year has tried to figure out how to get around the ruling. In December, Texas held a public hearing about whether it could issue detention centers a childcare license. At the meeting, Paul Morris, who’s in charge of issuing the licenses on behalf of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, told the crowd, “My staff would make periodic inspections of the facilities. They would investigate any allegations of abuse and neglect and any other alleged violations of minimum standards.”
That’s largely how the government has framed the need for the license. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—the federal agency that oversees the private company that runs Karnes facility—has said it’s an “important step forward in ICE’s commitment to enhancing oversight and transparency.”
But an Austin-based immigration attorney at the meeting, Virginia Raymond, called the idea “an insult to the common sense of the people of Texas.”
The Karnes center’s inspection report, filed in March of this year and obtained by The Texas Observer, showed six “deficiencies” in operations, including an unattended child, an unqualified employee, and no record-keeping of children’s allergies. But Texas said it met childcare standards anyway.
Then last week, the administration got a win when Texas issued the Karnes center the license. This week, Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that advocates against private ownership and operation of prison and detention centers, sued the state. A day later, a judge in Austin blocked the child-care license, putting it on hold until advocates and the government could sort it out in a hearing on May 13.
“By all reasonable measures, family detention camps are prisons,” said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership. Another nonprofit’s executive director likened the idea of calling them childcare facilities to putting lipstick on a pig.
Part of the problem advocates take with the detention center looking after children has been one of image, and Obama has recently tried to clean that image up, especially after senators and members of Congress visited last June––some of whom later demanded they be shut down. It was that summer one former Karnes employee said security locked up migrant mothers who spoke out about the conditions. She said a psychologist worked as an informant for federal agents, and that her bosses regularly asked her to omit complaints to hide them from government audits. In early 2015 and again in December 2015, migrants at the center went on hunger strikes.