In controversial move, Texas immigrant detention facility issued child care permit

To most, it may look like a jail. But now it is, in part at least, a licensed child care center.

A federal immigration detention center that has been used to hold thousands of mothers and their children has been granted a state child care license.

The move is coming under fire from groups that advocate for more lenient immigration policies and who, according to the New York Times, say the license is just a way to gloss over the prison environment that immigrants who arrive at the border or enter the country illegally are kept in, often for months.

“If ever there was lipstick on a pig, this is it,” said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of Raices, which provides legal services to immigrants. “If you want a child care facility, you don’t contract with a for-profit prison company.”

The detention center, called the Karnes County Residential Center, has a maximum capacity of 580 beds.

The GEO Group, a private prison management company that has partnered with the U.S. government since the 1980’s to run immigrant detention centers, runs the facility, the Times reported.

The child care license was issued by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and it would help the Obama administration get around a ruling from a federal judge that called for the immediate release of immigrants detained with their children. The ruling – handed down last year by a California judge and appealed by the administration – held that children were not to be kept in a prison setting that was not set up for child care.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security prefers to characterize Karnes as a type of processing center where families that enter the country illegally and request political asylum get health and security screenings.

The Times noted that the agency that on Friday issued the license – which lasts six months, but could become permanent if the facility addresses a few concerns – did so without public comment, first mentioning it on its website only on Monday.

After the federal judge’s ruling last year saying the Obama administration had to release children kept in unlicensed facilities, Texas officials amended the state’s child care licensing rules to allow the Karnes residential center, as well as another family detention center in the state, to apply for the license.

Advocates for immigrants mounted an unsuccessful court challenge to the state’s amended rules.

Those who defend the facility describe it as more of a campus, with a school, gym, medical clinic and other amenities. Immigrant groups say it is still essentially a jail that it is detrimental to the emotional well-being of children who often have fled traumatic situations in their homelands in Central America.

Officials for the Texas agency that granted the Karnes center a permit say they will be making unannounced visits through the year and will decide whether to make the license permanent at the end of 2016, the Times reported.

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