Texas judge frees hundreds of detained immigrants, bolstering Pa. case for closing Berks center

    Families recently released from immigrant detention centers in Texas crowd a San Antonio church. (Joey Palacios/Texas Public Radio)

    Families recently released from immigrant detention centers in Texas crowd a San Antonio church. (Joey Palacios/Texas Public Radio)

    In the last week, at least 470 women and children have been released from two immigrant detention centers in Texas, on the heels of a state court ruling.

    The case echoes the arc of an ongoing battle in Pennsylvania over the operation of the only other federal family immigrant detention center in the country. In both cases, state laws protecting children contradict federal detention practices, according to immigration rights activists.

    Texas District Court Judge Karin Crump’s brief judgment rejected the premise that the two largest of these centers, both located south of San Antonio, could legally detain children under a state-issued child care facility license.

    In operating as family detention centers, the Texas facilities violated part of the terms of that license by, for example, housing children with unrelated adults. To further complicate the situation, a federal court judge in California ruled last year that federal family immigration centers could not detain children without such child care licenses.

    Pushing the state to apply its child-protection statutes in federal detention centers is a tactic already in play in Pennsylvania.

    In early 2016, the state Department of Human Services decided not to relicense a facility in Berks County on many of the same grounds cited in the Texas case.

    The Berks County Commission appealed the Pennsylvania decision, and the center remains in operation.

    Temple University law professor Jennifer Lee said the Texas decision adds weight to the state’s position in Pennsylvania.

    “I think it gives more impetus to the idea that states can decide whether or not they want family detention,” she said. Lee and a group of attorney’s plan to file an amicus brief in the ongoing administrative appeal of the Pennsylvania center’s operation, citing the Texas decision.

    In the meantime, 86 women and children are housed at the Berks Family Residential Center, according to the most recent ICE tally.

    After the flood of releases in Texas, San Antonio area nonprofits and church groups struggled to help the unusually large number of clients, according to Texas Public Radio reporter Joey Palacios.

    “When I first got there, mattresses were strewn everywhere,” he said of a Mennonite church in that area. “The cafeteria was full of mattresses, the sanctuary was full of mattresses, the upstairs hallways were full of mattresses.”

    In a statement, ICE said it is “reviewing the court’s ruling on the matter of the operating license for the South Texas Family Residential Center. Operational activities continue without interruption at this time.”

    The drastic uptick in releases was a planned part of normal operations, according to the federal agency.

    “The attorneys that were helping these folks don’t believe that,” said Palacios.

    Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the type of law Jennifer Lee teaches. It also misidentified the party that appealed the PA DHS decision to revoke the Berks Family Detention Center’s child care license.

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