Republican-backed legislation introduced in the Texas legislature would enable the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to license two family detention centers as child-care facilities, while allowing the department to exempt these facilities from state rules.
Family detention is the policy of jailing asylum-seeking immigrant mothers with their children, including babies. The family detention centers in question are the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City. The bills would strike down a law that prevents DFPS from issuing child-care licenses, essentially allowing prison-like detention centers to operate as child-care facilities with reduced standards. For example, multiple families could be detained in one room, which isn’t allowed in child-care facilities outside of immigration detention.
Advocates assert that the GOP effort to allow DFPS to license these facilities has nothing to do with concern for children or providing oversight to the detention centers. Rather, it is to make sure the deadly private prison companies that run these family detention centers—the GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America—continue reaping profits.
Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based human rights organization Grassroots Leadership, said it’s also about acting in the best interest of the federal government.
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“The stated reason from DFPS for pushing for these licenses is so they can regulate the facilities and do inspections, but that’s not the truth. It’s really about slapping licenses on these facilities, while also not making them come up to licensing standards,” Libal said. “This is all very political. This is happening because [DFPS] wanted to help the federal government detain children and families. This is not in the interest of children; it’s about upholding the Flores legislation.”
In 1997, the settlement agreement in Flores v. Lynch confirmed that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. Rather than closing these family detention centers, DFPS and the state of Texas has pushed to have them licensed. Despite not being licensed, these facilities continue to operate in violation of federal law.
People who had been held in family detention, as well as immigration and child-welfare advocates, spoke out at a Wednesday hearing in opposition to the proposed bills.
What’s perhaps most troubling about the bills, Libal said, is that they give the DFPS commissioner the ability to change standards or reduce them further.
“There’s a reason why people from the American Academy of Pediatrics and similar groups, that usually don’t work around immigration, are speaking out: Because this is bad for children,” Libal said. “If you read the bill, it says that the commissioner would have this power in part, for the operation of the facility. This means they can change the standards on the books in order for private prison companies to operate these facilities however they want to. This isn’t a regulation regime that improves standards; it allows for current operations to exist as private prison corporations design them.”
The practice of family detention has been deemed inhumane and is known to be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, but the family detention system will only grow under President Trump. The new administration is following in the footsteps of President Obama, targeting Central American asylum seekers and expanding immigrant detention. Just three months into Trump’s presidency, the private prison industry is booming, with companies like GEO and CoreCivic, known for human rights abuses and in-custody deaths, standing to benefit further.
Libal said that despite public opposition to the bills, GOP lawmakers seem in favor of moving them forward.
“There’s no telling what will happen in the Texas legislature, but we’ll just keep speaking out,” Libal said. “I have a lot of concerns for the future of family detention. These licenses are just a way to avoid the implications of federal litigation that have to do with standards that should be used when caring for children. This is an immigration issue, but it’s also a children’s rights issue. These bills are absolutely the wrong way to go forward.”