AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – More than 400 women and children have been released from two South Texas immigration detention centers since Saturday, following a judge’s ruling that the facilities cannot be issued child care licenses.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials said in a statement that the release has nothing to do with the judge’s ruling, which was published Friday, but was a scheduled part of “normal operations.”
Over the weekend, busloads of immigrant women and children were taken from the nation’s two largest family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, to San Antonio, where local organizations are scrambling to provide shelter and services for them.
San Antonio councilman Ron Nirenberg described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis.”
“There’s nothing standard about what’s happening now,” Nirenberg told Courthouse News on Tuesday.
Nirenberg said “there’s not entirely accurate information being shared from ICE and the detention facility” regarding how many immigrants are being released and when they are being released.
“San Antonio has always been an extraordinary city in dealing with very unfortunate human issues like this, but we require at least the cooperation of accurate information to be shared with our local partners,” he said.
Typically, only a few families are released from the detention facilities at a time — and immigration advocates told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that the mass release “came as a surprise.”
Officials for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a San Antonio-based nonprofit helping to shelter released families, told the newspaper they were given no explanation for the hurried release of what they said was the largest number of people to be freed from the centers at once.
“We can only hope this is a sign that the Obama administration is finally deciding to end this failed experiment in family detention,” RAICES Director Jonathan Ryan said in a statement.
The release began a day after Judge Karin Crump of the Texas 250th District Court issued a final judgment invalidating a Texas regulation that allowed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, also called DFPS, to license the Karnes and Dilley centers as child care facilities.
The regulation would have allowed for licensure without compliance with state minimum standards that ordinarily apply to such facilities, including a ban on children sharing bedrooms with unrelated adults.
The facilities, which are privately owned, hold thousands of immigrant women and children for several weeks at a time.
Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership and several mothers who had been detained with their children in Dilley and Karnes filed the underlying lawsuit challenging the regulation.
“The conditions at Karnes and Dilley are equivalent to prisons, not child care facilities,” Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement.
During hearings in May and June, Crump heard testimony from mothers detained at the facilities and from child-welfare experts who testified the family detention camps — where crayons are currently banned in the visitation area — are harmful to the physical and mental well-being of children.
One mother said her daughter had been touched inappropriately by another detainee sharing their room at the Karnes facility.
“We are glad the court heard our concerns about the damage that family detention does to mothers and their children and how lowering standards to issue licenses to these facilities only exacerbates that harm,” Libal said in the press statement.
According to an April article from the Texas Observer, DFPS made the move to issue the facilities child care licenses to comply with federal rules, so they would not have to release the children.
In 2015, a federal judge had ordered the release of immigrant children from family detention centers, citing “deplorable conditions” in violation of a 1997 settlement agreement saying children should not be held in unlicensed facilities, according to the Observer.
Jerry Wesevich, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who represented Grassroots Leadership and the mothers in the case, said in a statement that state executives admitted that DFPS wanted to license the detention facilities to “help the federal government, and not the children.”
“Motive matters and we believe it was the key to the case,” Wesevich said.
On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed Crump’s Friday ruling. The attorney general’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation.