AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas detention centers for families caught illegally crossing the southern U.S. border are more like jails that have sickened kids, affected their mental health and put them in danger, a group of immigrant mothers testified Friday.
The women described living at the two centers during a court hearing in which a judge was being asked by an activist group to stop the state from granting residential child-care licenses to the facilities.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, through the private prison firms that run the two Texas detention centers, has been working to get the facilities licensed after a California federal judge last year ruled immigrant children couldn't be held at centers not licensed as child care facilities.
After the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services last month issued a temporary license to the 500-bed facility in Karnes City, the Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership sued, saying the agency didn't have the authority to license such centers as child care facilities.
Grassroots Leadership has asked for a temporary injunction to stop the implementation of the rule allowing the licensing of the two detention centers. The other facility is the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. Both are located south of San Antonio and opened in 2014 in response to the arrival of tens of thousands of mothers and children from Central America.
Three Central American women who live at the facility at Dilley testified in Spanish that the water there tasted bad and made children sick with stomach aches or vomiting.
The Associated Press is not publishing the mothers' names after Crump ordered they not be identified, saying doing so could put them at risk as they fled their home countries because of gang threats.
One of the women said her 7-year-old daughter is depressed and cannot sleep after 25 days at the Dilley facility.
"She doesn't want to be there anymore," said the woman, from Guatemala. "She keeps asking me, 'Why am I here?' She asks, 'If we are running away from evil in our country, why is it that (when) we get here we are in this jail? Is (it) that people here are bad like they are down in Guatemala?'"
A fourth woman, being held in Karnes City, testified by telephone her 12-year-old daughter is now "very scared" after the girl was sexually harassed and touched in her private parts by a female roommate.
Todd Disher, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General's Office, argued state licensing improves safety because it requires the facilities to submit to unannounced inspections and state background check requirements. Disher said the state's review of the Karnes facility resulted in the firing of five workers for problems in their backgrounds.
"Who better to regulate these facilities, the facility itself or the state?" Disher said.
Advocates say the Texas lawsuit is part of their broader legal efforts to have federal officials again adhere to a longtime agreement that called for children and their families to be held only for a short time before being released to family, friends or others while their cases are decided.
Federal officials say these ongoing courtroom battles — in Texas and California — make it more difficult for them to respond to this summer's expected influx of immigrant families. They believe the centers help deter illegal immigration.
A decision on the temporary injunction — which could further complicate the federal government's ability to keep children at the facilities — was delayed until at least next month. State District Judge Karin Crump said the hearing would resume on June 1 with more testimony.
Crump extended until the next hearing a temporary restraining order blocking Texas from granting a license to the facility in Dilley.
Lozano reported from Houston.