Death of ‘Baby Jails’ Bill a Win for Immigrant Families

After passing the Texas Senate earlier this month, the GOP-backed bill sat in a House committee beyond do-or-die deadlines.

Central American refugees arrive at a refugee assistance facility in McAllen.  Jen Reel

The “baby jails” bill is dead.

Legislation written by a lobbyist for a private prison company that would’ve licensed family detention centers as childcare facilities has run out of time to pass, according to its author. Senate Bill 1018 would have lowered state standards so private prison firms could detain asylum-seeking children for months at a time.

After passing the Senate 20-11 earlier this month, the GOP-backed bill needed a vote from the full House by Tuesday, but it languished in committee past the deadline. The bill was written by a lobbyist for GEO Group, Inc., the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison corporation.

“The bill is dead; the legislation cannot pass,” said Drew Tedford, legislative director for Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who authored the Senate version.

Hughes argued his bill would protect children by providing more state regulation, but child welfare advocates and immigrant rights activists saw it as a twisted favor to disreputable for-profit prison firms.

“It was always clear to me this was a vendor bill that prioritized profits over children,” said Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. “The very idea of having baby jails was unconscionable. To me that this [bill] has died is a good death.”

Karnes County Residential Center
Karnes County Residential Center  Bob Owen / San Antonio Express-News/ZUMA Wire)

Family detention centers are used by the federal government to hold mothers and children seeking asylum, often fleeing violence in Central America. Two of the nation’s three facilities are in Texas and together can hold about 3,200 detainees.

The Texas Pediatric Society has said the facilities cause depression and anxiety and can impede development in children.

Federal courts have held that children may only be detained for prolonged periods of time in “licensed, nonsecure facilities.” The rulings limited family detention centers to holding children for a few weeks at a time. By creating a process to license the centers as childcare facilities, the bill would have let the prison companies detain families for the duration of their cases — months in most instances.

SB 1018 would have given the Department of Family and Protective Services the authority to waive any standards the agency deemed necessary to license the facilities, including letting children share rooms with unrelated adults.

The bill’s death is a setback for family detention centers, but will not shut down the facilities.

“The Karnes Family Residential Center will continue to operate and provide high-quality services pursuant to Family Residential Standards set by the Federal government,” said Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for GEO Group, in a statement Friday. “Contrary to claims made by opponents, the legislation our company supported did not diminish the standards for family residential centers.”

Nina Pruneda, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency “does not comment on pending legislation.”

Senator Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said he was relieved the bill had died and that “it was always clear that it would harm children and families.”

Dozens of people testified against the legislation in committee hearings. Four testified in favor — three of which were employees of GEO Group, which receives $55 million a year from the federal government to run its Karnes facility.

Advocates argue that asylum-seeking families can simply be released to live with family or in shelters while their cases are resolved. Evidence suggests that well over 90 percent of asylum-seeking families with legal counsel appear for their court hearings.

On Friday, the Huffington Post reported the case of an Afghani mother who has been detained in Karnes with her two children for nearly six months, despite the federal rulings that limit how long children may be detained. The mother, who suffers from depression, reportedly attempted suicide earlier this month in an attempt to get her children released.

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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Published at 3:31 pm CST
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