DALLAS (AP) — A recent promise by President Donald Trump's administration not to separate most parents and children who are stopped crossing the U.S.-Mexico border means the government will need space to hold them, but the only facilities equipped to house families are having trouble getting licensed as child care facilities.
The Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has contracts with three family residential centers — one in Pennsylvania and two in Texas. All three are appealing court or agency rulings saying they should not be licensed as child care facilities. Texas lawmakers are considering a workaround that would adjust child care facility standards. A look at answers to key questions:
Q: WHAT MAKES THESE CENTERS DIFFERENT FROM ADULT DETENTION FACILITIES?
A: Immigration officials say the facilities are designed like dormitories, with sleeping quarters, snack stations and televisions, as well as educational and medical services and outdoor recreation space. In recent legislative hearings in Texas, the GEO Group — the private prison company that runs one of the Texas facilities — compared its guards to resident advisers.
Immigration reform advocates say the facilities are still detention centers, noting that they conduct lockdowns and bed checks, observe lax educational standards and impose restrictions on toys and crayons. The advocates also note that children sleep in areas with unrelated adults and that the facilities make decisions that would normally be decided by parents, including bedtimes and food choices.
Q: WHO IS HELD IN THE FACILITIES AND HOW MANY?
A: The facilities are designed to hold immigrant parents, usually mothers, and their children. As of the end of last week, 43 people were being held at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, 108 people at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, and 250 people at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to ICE records.
Those numbers are lower than in recent months and years because of a decrease in border crossings recently and attempts to make sure minors are seen by immigration judges within three weeks of detainment.
The centers can hold a total of about 3,700 people, with the two in Texas having the majority of those beds. Many of the families come from Central America and are seeking asylum.
Q: WHY ARE THE FACILITIES SEEKING CHILD CARE LICENSES?
A: The Texas centers sought state licensing after a federal judge ruled in 2015 that the family detention centers were a breach of a decades-old legal settlement that set rules for housing immigrant children. The settlement required that the facilities not be secured like prisons and that they have licenses in child care. The ruling is being appealed.
The Pennsylvania facility was licensed by the state as a child residential center in 2013, but the state's Department of Human Services refused to renew the license in 2016, saying the center's operation as an immigration detention facility was inconsistent with the requirements for the license. Berks County officials have challenged that decision at the agency and asked a court to weigh in.
Immigration officials say the licenses would give state agencies more leeway to inspect the facilities regularly and investigate complaints.
Advocates opposed to the licenses point to financial filings from the GEO Group in which the company notes that licenses would allow them to detain families and children longer. Advocates say the state would have to lower its child care standards to license the facilities.
Q: WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY DO NOT OBTAIN LICENSES?
A: Federal officials said the facilities will continue detaining immigrant families while the lower court rulings are appealed. ICE officials would not comment on what happens if the licenses are denied, citing the ongoing litigation.
Without licenses, immigration advocates say, the federal ruling would require children to be released within three weeks. That ruling has also been put on hold while an appeal is being heard.
Employees of GEO Group, which receives a base fee per bed regardless of whether the beds are full, told a Texas legislative committee earlier this month that without a license, the company may decide to transition the facility to a regular immigration detention facility for adults. The representatives said that would likely be accompanied by job cuts.
Q: WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
A: Briefs in the appeal of the 2015 federal court ruling are due in August. Appeals in Texas and Pennsylvania state courts are progressing. Meanwhile, Texas legislative committees considering proposals to change child care licensing laws have not yet voted on the bills.