HOUSTON — A Texas appeals court's ruling Wednesday could allow state authorities to formally license two detention centers that house thousands of immigrant families, something advocates warn might lead to the unlimited detention of migrant children.
Two facilities in the South Texas cities of Karnes and Dilley have the capacity to detain roughly 3,500 parents and children. Under federal court rulings, the government is required to release children from Karnes or Dilley quickly because the facilities aren't licensed by a state or local government. That effectively leads to the faster release of many parents as well.
Texas' effort to license the facilities shortly after they opened was stopped in 2016 by an Austin judge.
But the 3rd Texas Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned the lower court. The appeals court said the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership and several parents who were detained in the facilities didn't have the legal standing to challenge the state agencies seeking to issue licenses.
Amy Warr, a lawyer for Grassroots Leadership, said the state couldn't move forward with licensing while appeals were still pending. Grassroots Leadership has two weeks to decide whether to seek a rehearing at the appeals court.
But the group's executive director, Bob Libal, said he was afraid the ruling may lead to "kids languishing in these prisons for years."
"If the parents of children who are harmed by the licensing of this detention center don't have standing, I'm not sure who does," Libal said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the ruling and says Texas "strives to keep children as safe as possible."
He said the appeals court "correctly recognizes that the challenge is really about one group's disagreement with federal policy."
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which licenses child-care facilities, declined to comment on the ruling.
The Obama administration opened Karnes and Dilley as family detention centers in 2014, during a previous wave of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Trump administration has used the facilities to detain some families together that it separated under its zero-tolerance policy implemented earlier this year. It has fought a key court settlement known as the Flores agreement and proposed changes through Congress to many of its provisions, including the requirement that children be held in state-licensed facilities.
Karnes and Dilley collectively contain almost all the family detention space available to the Trump administration. Trump suggested earlier this month that the government would build tent cities to detain families that cross the U.S.-Mexico border without legal permission, though no new facilities have opened so far.