By Andrea Ball

The state's child protection agency will now license immigrant family detention centers, all but guaranteeing that the two Texas facilities housing thousands of mothers and children will remain open.

The South Texas Family Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center -- which can house up to 3,300 families awaiting immigration proceedings -- had been in danger of closing because of a July federal court ruling that says children can only live in detention centers if they are licensed by state child welfare agencies. Texas' facilities are not.

Until now, the state Department of Family and Protective Services had maintained that it didn't have the legal authority to license, inspect and investigate the facilities. This week, the agency gave itself that power.

The two detention centers, both run by private prison companies, will have to apply for licenses, Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. But that licensure is almost assured. For months, the state has insisted that regulation would help protect the children who live there. More recently, officials have also said keeping the centers open helps with immigration control. Federal officials asked Texas to license the facilities, Crimmins told the Statesman last month.

Immigration rights advocates criticized the state's decision, saying the move is solely motivated by politics.

"I think the agency should be ashamed," said Bob Libal with Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes private prison companies.

Texas' family detention centers are locked facilities that hold immigrant women and children who have been deemed nonviolent and noncriminal. The South Texas center, which can hold up to 2,400 people, is in Dilley. The Karnes County facility, which can house up to 830, is in Karnes City.

The centers are overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Advocates say the detention centers harm children by forcing them to live in a prison-like environment.

Most detainees are asylum seekers who are fleeing drug and gang violence in such Central American countries as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Families generally stay at the detention centers for three weeks, then are released with ankle monitors to await their immigration proceedings, though advocates say some have been detained for several months.

Texas' decision comes seven months after U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that, among other things, immigrant children could only be detained in facilities licensed by state child welfare agencies. Gee didn't order Texas to license the existing federal facilities. But if the state does not, the two centers likely will have to close -- which is exactly what advocates like Libal want.

The likely licensing of the Karnes and Dilley facilities comes at a time when the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is doing the opposite with the only other immigrant family detention center in the country in Leesport, Pa.

Last month, that state's health agency ruled that it won't license the Berks County Residential Center as a child residential facility because it "is operating as a residential center for the detention of immigrant families, including adults." The facility is appealing that decision.

(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas