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Joint letter to TX officials about private immigration family detention facilities

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October 13, 2015
The Hon. Greg Abbott
Governor
Office of the Governor

P.O. Box 12428

Austin, Texas 78711-2428
The Hon. John J. Specia, Jr.
Commissioner
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
701 West 51st Street
Austin, Texas 78751
Dear Governor Abbott and Commissioner Specia,
We write to you today to share our concerns about the possibility that the Department of Family
and Protective Services (DFPS) may license family immigration detention centers, specifically
the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City and the South Texas Family Residential
Center in Dilley. As you know, the Obama Administration began utilizing these centers in 2014
to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to detain mothers and children during
immigration proceedings.
Recent rule-making by DFPS that allows for licensing of family immigration detention centers is
fundamentally at odds with the agency’s mission of ensuring safe and healthy childcare services
as part of its overall mandate to protect children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. The rulemaking puts DFPS in the position of potentially licensing detention centers, which are not established to care for or provide services to children for their welfare but rather are designed to hold
children in secure custody in order to execute federal immigration law enforcement purposes.1 It
is simply not possible for DFPS to regulate or license family immigration detention centers without skirting the rules that it normally requires facilities to follow, in order to ensure the health
and safety of children. Numerous independent individuals and organizations have documented
the fact that children at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers are exposed to conditions that in
any other setting child care professionals would deem at best neglectful and at worst abusive.
To the extent that DFPS seeks to hold the family detention centers accountable for the safety and
well-being of its child residents, we applaud its laudable goal. We urge the State of Texas to ex-

1 The

detention centers are unlike any daycare, foster home, domestic violence shelter, residential treatment center
or U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement-contracted shelter for unaccompanied minors, which are regulated by this
agency as part of its mandate to ensure the welfare of children. See https://www.dfps.state.tx.us/About_DFPS/
Data_Books_and_Annual_Reports/2014/2014AR-ccl.asp.

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ercise its full authority to investigate the troubling conditions documented at the Karnes and Dilley facilities. The licensing approach, however, is unnecessary and unwise.
•

These facilities, by their nature, do not foster child welfare

Since 2014, the federal government has elected to detain mothers and children, the overwhelming majority of whom have fled their countries of origin to seek legal protection from violence
and abuse. Almost all of the families detained at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers are eligible for asylum and may one day become U.S. citizens. Most of the families have relatives in
the United States with whom they can reside while their deportation cases proceed before the
immigration courts and they make their asylum claims. However, the Obama Administration
routinely holds families for indefinite periods of time in prison-like conditions of confinement.
These conditions have exacerbated trauma symptoms and caused additional harm to children. To
this end, we share with you concerns expressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Luis
Zayas, Dean of the University of Texas School of Social Work, as well as complaints documenting abuse and neglect of children at these facilities. Class action litigation and the reports of
multiple organizations have documented systemic violations of basic human rights and dignity in
the detention centers. These violations have irreparably harmed the children held there.2
The size of these detention centers alone—2,400 capacity at Dilley and 1,100 planned for Karnes
—contradicts evidence-based child welfare practices of avoiding large, congregate care facilities
for children.3 Research shows children do better with their families in their communities. Furthermore, current conditions in the facilities run afoul of some of the most basic DFPS requirements for licensees that are not exempted by the emergency rule – including standards requiring
access to basic medical care. See 40 Tex. Admin. Code §748.1531 et seq. Numerous reports
have documented the failure to provide appropriate medical treatment to the mothers and children detained at the Karnes and Dilley facilities.
The detention of children in these facilities does not facilitate, but rather compromises, the health
and well-being of children. Given the law enforcement purpose of these detention centers, regu2

See, e.g., Pleadings and Declarations filed in Flores v. Lynch, available at: http://www.aila.org/infonet/floresplaintiffs-response-to-order-show-cause and http://immigrantchildren.org/Flores_Case.html; Pleadings and Declarations filed in R.I.L.R. v. Johnson, available at: https://www.aclu.org/cases/rilr-v-johnson; American Bar Association,
Family Immigration Detention: Why the Past Cannot be Prologue (July 2015), available at: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/immigration/FamilyDetentionReport2015.authcheckdam.pdf; American
Immigration Lawyers Association, Women’s Refugee Commission, American Immigration Council, Complaint to
DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: The Psychological Impact of Family Detention on Mothers and
Children Seeking Asylum (June 30, 2015), available at: http://www.aila.org/advo-media/press-releases/2015/impact-family-detention-mental-health/complaint-crcl. Complaint: ICE’s Continued Failure to Provide Adequate Medical Care to Mothers and Children Detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center available at http://
www.aila.org/advo-media/press-releases/2015/crcl-complaint-family-detention/cara-jointly-filed-a-complaint.
3See,

e.g., A National Look at the Use of Congregate Care in Child Welfare (U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau, May 13, 2015); Rightsizing Congregate
Care A Powerful First Step in Transforming Child Welfare Systems (Annie E. Casey Foundation, January 1, 2009).

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lating and licensing the centers is inappropriate and would not improve the welfare of the children held in custody.
•

Licensing under reduced standards will not ensure child protection but condone neglect
and abuse

The DFPS rulemaking and possible licensing will not improve conditions for children in family
immigration detention centers to a level that ensures adequate protection of child welfare but instead will put the agency’s seal of approval on existing conditions that are deeply problematic.
The emergency rules modify the standards to meet the practices at the facilities rather than requiring the facilities to ensure practices that meet minimum standards for child welfare.
In its rulemaking, DFPS acknowledges the impossibility of licensing family detention centers in
keeping with the agency’s minimum standards for other child-serving facilities. It specifically
exempts the facilities from standards on maximum number of room occupants, sharing bedrooms
with unrelated adults, and sharing bedrooms with the opposite gender. The rule also permits the
facilities to seek additional waivers or variance from the minimum standards.
The specific promulgated exemptions seriously compromise children’s safety by expressly permitting current dangerous practices at the detention centers, which house unrelated families in
single rooms, requiring unrelated children of different genders and ages to sleep in the same enclosed space with unrelated adults. As documented in the attached reports, at least two instances
of sexual abuse of children have already occurred at the detention centers, likely as a result of the
housing arrangements, and others may well have gone unreported.
DFPS developed its minimum standards considering basic, well-established measures necessary
to keep children safe from abuse or neglect. The exemptions from several core requirements, as
well as the possible compromise of other standards suggests that the agency is authorizing the
ICE facilities to operate at impermissible levels of risk of harm to children.
•

DFPS and local law enforcement already have tools to respond to reported abuse and neglect

Regulation and licensing is not necessary to respond to incidents of abuse or neglect at the family
immigration detention centers. Currently, DFPS is obligated to investigate reports of abuse and
neglect by “a person responsible for a child's care, custody, or welfare,” including “personnel or
a volunteer … at a public or private residential institution or facility where the child resides.”
See Texas Family Code §§261.301, 261.001. The law does not impose this obligation only for
licensed facilities. The agency can also partner with relevant law enforcement entities in the investigation of abuse and neglect. DFPS does not need to have the family immigration detention
centers licensed in order to provide regular and comprehensive oversight. Because it is not possible for DFPS to license family immigration detention centers without lowering critical minimum standards, licensing would only serve to weaken the agency’s ability to ensure child well!3

being by permitting the detention centers to operate with lowered safety protections, placing the
state at risk of liability should harm come to children or mothers as a result of the weakened
standards. Rather than licensing the Karnes and Dilley detention centers, we urge DFPS and law
enforcement to utilize its existing authority to investigate any and all reports of abuse and neglect
of mothers and children detained at the detention centers, including by the personnel employed at
the facilities.
•

DFPS should not use its limited resources to cover federal responsibilities or ensure profits to private prison companies

Finally, we are concerned that the federal immigration agency is essentially coopting DFPS’s
limited resources to further federal detention policy decisions that have been found to be unlawful. As noted in the order adopting the emergency rule, the sole purpose of the emergency DFPS
regulation is to assist the federal government in complying with the federal district court’s order
in Flores v. Lynch, Order, Case 2:85-cv-04544-DMG-AGR (C.D.Cal. Aug. 21, 2015), which confirmed that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. Licensing facilities by exempting them from the Texas minimum care standards does not meet the child welfare concerns raised by the federal court and the
1997 Flores settlement agreement that it is enforcing. The licenses would serve two purposes
that have nothing to do with child protection: 1) supporting the federal government’s litigation
position in defense of the facilities, and 2) ensuring continued profit to The Geo Group, Inc. and
the Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison companies that own and administer
the Karnes and Dilley detention centers. Investing taxpayer dollars to license detention centers
that are currently subject to ongoing lawsuits is reckless and is inconsistent with a conservative
use of limited public resources.
While we continue to urge frequent investigation of the conditions at these facilities, given the
significant concerns expressed in this letter, we ask DFPS to rescind emergency rule §748.7 and
decline to promulgate a final rule. We urge DFPS not to license the Karnes and Dilley detention
centers. We ask that the State of Texas take all steps to protect the safety and well-being of the
children detained at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers through current investigative capabilities and law enforcement authority.
Sincerely,
Texas-based Organizations:
Adjunct Justice
American Civil Liberties Union of Texas
American Gateways
Asociacion de Servicios Para el Inmigrante
Bernardo Kohler Center
CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project

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Children's Defense Fund — Texas
Grassroots Leadership
Immigrant Services Network of Austin
Interfaith Welcome Coalition
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)
Texas Appleseed
Texas Civil Rights Project
Texas Jail Project
Walker Gates Vela PLLC
National and Regional Organizations:
American Immigration Council
American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)
AMIGA, Association of Mother Immigration Attorneys
Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)
Centro Legal de la Raza
Conversations With Friends (MN)
Detention Watch Network
End Family Detention
ENLACE
First Focus
Florida Immigrant Coalition, Inc. (FLIC)
Friends of Broward Detainees
Human Rights Defense Center
Immigrant Justice Corps
Juntos
La Puerta Abierta/the Open Door
MALDEF
Missouri/Kansas AILA chapter
National Immigrant Justice Center
No More Deaths
Philadelphia Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)
Tahirih Justice Center
Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights
Women’s Refugee Commission
Individual Legal and Mental Health/Child Welfare Professionals: (affiliation provided for
identification purposes only)
Brian Aust, Esq.
Augustin Batlle, M.D.
Allison Boyl, Esq.
Ralph Bradley, Esq.
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Carol Butler, Clinical Psychologist
Jane Canner-O'Mealy, PhD, Educational Psychology
Stacy Caplow, Esq.
Joseph Cathey, Esq.
Randall Caudle, Esq.
Gerard Chapman, Esq., Chapman Law Firm
Chris Christensen, Esq.
Cristina Cigarroa, Esq., Law Office of Karen J. Crawford
Graciela Cigarroa , Esq.
Dree K. Collopy, Esq.
Laurie Cook Heffron, PhD, LMSW
Joe Crews, Esq.
Karen Crawford, Esq., Law Office of Karen J. Crawford
Melissa Cuadrado, Esq.
Annette D'Armata, M.D.
Alberto de la Torre, Esq.
Michelle Dellatorre, Esq., The Door
Emily Dixon, paralegal, Forsythe Immigration Law Firm
Jenny Doyle, Esq.
Larry Elsner, MSSW, Executive Director, Open Door Preschools
Tomas Esparza, Esq.
Angela Ferguson, Esq.
Guadalupe Fernandez, Children's Legal Advocate
John G. Flowers III, Counselor
Joan Friedland, Esq.
R. Andrew Free, Esq.
Cesar Garcia Hernandez, Esq.
Benjamin Grass, Director of Operations, Health Bridges International, CARA volunteer
Joanna Gaughan, Esq.
Malcolm Greenstein, Esq.
Natalie Hansen, Esq., Hansen & Taylor, PLLC
Tala Hartsough, Esq.
Derrick Hensley, Esq.
Barbara Hines, Esq.
Francis E. Johnson, Esq.
Faye Kolly, Esq.
Mark Kleiman, Esq.
David Kolko, Esq.
Jana Kreofsky, CSWA, mental health clinician
Rev. Joseph Keesecker
Cynthia Leigh, Hines & Leigh, P.C.
Laura Lichter, Esq.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, Lincoln Goldfinch Law
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Walter Long, Esq.
Amy Maldonado, Esq.
Shamaila Malik, Esq., Malik Law Firm
Brian McGiverin, Esq., Diez, Lawrence & McGiverin Law Center
Beth Miller, M.D.
Hillary Milller, M.D.
Adilene Nunez, Esq.
Sinead O’Carroll, Esq.
Katherine O’Sullivan, MSW-LCSW
Virginia Raymond, Esq., Law Office of Virginia Raymond
Paula Rhodes, Esq.
Blanca Rojo Rodriguez, Esq.
Victoria Rossi, paralegal, Law Office of Virginia Raymond
Jeanne Santos, paralegal, Siskind Susser PC
Ana Schwartz, Esq., Law Offices of Ana Maria Schwartz
Lisa Seifert, Esq., Seifert Law Offices
Michael Shannon, Esq.
Benjamin Snyder, Esq.
Charlotte Shivers Johnson, Esq.
Maureen Sweeney, Esq.
Stephanie Taylor, Hansen & Taylor, PLLC
Natalie Teague, Esq., Teague Immigration Law Office
Cynthia Tyler, Esq.
Jose “Chito” Vela, III, Esq., Walker Gates Vela PLLC
Marie Vincent, Esq., Pangea Legal Services
Susannah Volpe, Esq., Walker Gates Vela PLLC
Jennifer Walker-Gates, Walker Gates Vela PLLC
Ivan Yacub, Esq.
Lisa York, Esq.
Magnolia Zarraga, Esq.
Faculty (affiliation provided for identification purposes only)
Farrin Anello
Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor, Seton Hall Law
Jon Bauer
Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, University of Connecticut School of Law
Janet Beck, Esq.
University of Houston Law Center, Immigration Clinic

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S. Megan Berthold
University of Connecticut, School of Social Work
Sarah Blue
Associate Professor, Texas State University
Blaine Bookey
Co-Legal Director, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, UC Hastings
Kristina Campbell
Professor of Law and Director, UDC Immigration & Human Rights Clinic
Mery Diaz, DSW, LCSW
Assistant Professor, Health and Human Services Department, New York City College of Technology
Katie Dingeman-Cerda
Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Denver
Edmund Farrell
Emeritus Professor, University of Texas
Lauren Gilbert
Professor of Law, St. Thomas University School of Law
Jennifer Glass
Bush Professor of Liberal Arts, Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin
Anne Lewis
Senior Lecturer, RTF, Moody College of Communications, University of Texas at Austin
Lisa Maya Knauer
Chair, Dept of Sociology/Anthropology, UMass Dartmouth
Christopher Lasch
Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Kathryn Libal
Professor of Social Work, University of Connecticut
Jennifer Moore
Professor of Law, University of New Mexico

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John Moran Gonzalez
Associate Professor, University of Texas
Elora Mukherjee
Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Columbia Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic
Linda Rabben
University of Maryland
Cesar Salgado
Professor, University of Texas
Juliet Stumpf
Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark Law School
Lee Teran
Director, Immigration & Human Rights Clinic, St. Mary's University School of Law
Diane Uchimiya
Director of the Justice and Immigration Clinic, University of La Verne College of Law
Leti Volpp
Professor, Berkeley Law

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