More than 400 women and children have been freed from two Texas immigration detention facilities after a federal judge found the sites unsuitable for holding children, sending families into a wet, frigid December night while migrant advocates scrambled to provide shelter, food and emergency care.
One woman suffering from a massive, untreated leg infection was rushed to a San Antonio hospital. A Mennonite convent's nuns opened their doors and laid out donated sleeping bags on the floor.
"They were shoved out in a really rushed manner," said Amy Fischer, policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in San Antonio.
The state of Texas had first licensed the two facilities — the federal, privately run South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City — as appropriate for children, after a flood of women and children arrived on the U.S. border in 2014 from Central America, seeking asylum.
The facilities were not designed to house children and have struggled to adapt to the task. A recent ban on crayons in the visiting area of the Karnes facility, for instance, drew criticism from migrant advocates, who called the ban unnecessarily punitive.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services argued in federal court that being licensed as appropriate for children subjected the facilities to agency oversight and would help the agency investigate claims of child abuse.
But in the terse decision handed down Friday, Travis County District Court Judge Karin Crump found the license "runs counter to the general objectives of the Texas Human Resources Code and is, therefore, invalid."
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, who wished to remain anonymous because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, claimed that the massive release had nothing to do with Crump's order and was instead a scheduled part of normal operations.
ICE and the Department of Homeland Security had been exploring the possibility of building a new detention facility to hold children and their families, and Crump's decision may complicate those plans.
An information request filed by those agencies to the U.S. General Services Administration in March sought market price information on "services to house family units composed of adults with juvenile family members of all age ranges." The proposed facility would create structured education programs for children ages 4 and up, and include accommodations for children with special needs or disabilities, as well as field trips.
To immigrant advocates, the announcement came as a surprise, Fischer said. ICE informed Fischer's organization that it was bringing a busload of 50 migrants to its San Antonio facility on Saturday night. Then another bus came, and another: 460 people in all, and the group, which primarily provides legal support to migrants in immigration courts, had nowhere to put them.
The organization's staff said it was by far the largest number of people released at one time from Karnes and Dilley to the group's shelter.
"There was no information as to why," Fischer said. "Deportation officers said, 'We're bringing a bus.' "
Local churches stepped in, including the Mennonite convent, to take in some of the families. Some families were put on buses or airplanes to meet sponsors in far-flung corners of the country.
Others huddled on the floor of a San Antonio church to wait for what comes next.
Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara