A coalition of civil rights groups and Texas Democrats laid out a plan Tuesday for responding to the federal government’s separation and detention of migrant families. Lawmakers called for the state to pay for legal representation for children and parents in immigration proceedings, increase oversight of state-licensed youth detention centers and refuse to help the Trump administration detain immigrant families indefinitely.
“We in Texas are at the forefront of the problem because we have more than a third of the detention centers and a majority of the children — it’s our responsibility,” said Mary González, a state representative from El Paso and vice chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, at a Capitol press conference.
While the federal government is largely in control of immigration enforcement, González said the state can do more to fight back. The list of proposals, likely to turn into bills in next year’s legislative session, marked the first time Texas Democrats have laid out official measures in response to family separations.
González emphasized increased oversight of the 37 migrant youth detention centers in Texas, which are operated by nonprofits under federal contract and licensed by the state health department. Firsthand accounts by children have alleged jail-like conditions at Texas facilities, which held more than 5,200 kids as of July 13. González and her colleagues want to change the law so that legislators can regularly visit. They’d also like to require more frequent unannounced inspections by the state health department.
González’s district includes the so-called tent city in Tornillo, a makeshift facility erected last month to accommodate Trump’s family separations. Since the 360-bed center is on federal land, state officials have said they are unable to license or regulate it. González said officials may be misinterpreting the law and that Governor Greg Abbott should clarify the issue before the session starts in January.
She also hopes to court support from Republicans during the upcoming session. “I don’t think this is a partisan issue. … Everyone can get behind the idea that we don’t want children to be abused,” González said, citing criticism of family separations by Texas Republicans including Joe Straus, outgoing speaker of the House.
The Latino lawmakers also called for the state to fund pro-bono legal representation for children and parents in immigration proceedings — something not presently guaranteed by federal law — through the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit linked to the Texas Supreme Court.
At the press conference, Texas Civil Rights Project Director Mimi Marziani said only 99 of the 382 separated parents that her organization represents have been reunited. Marziani called it “highly unlikely” the government would meet its court-mandated Thursday deadline to reunify all separated families.
Nationwide, fewer than half of the more than 2,600 kids separated from their parents by the Trump administration have been reunited and more than 450 parents have likely been deported without their children, according to a Monday court filing. State Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said he feared the Trump administration would “orphan” some migrant children.
Lawmakers also criticized immigrant family detention generally, signifying that simply ending family separations would not be enough to mollify them.
“It is critical that the state reject any policy, such as the licensing of family detention centers, that may indefinitely prolong the detention of children,” reads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ document outlining its proposals.
Last year, a major private prison corporation tried to get the Texas Legislature to license its family detention center, but the bill died amid pushback from Democrats and activists. As things stand, the state may inspect family detention centers without licensing them.
González appeared ready to oppose for-profit migrant incarceration beyond the scope of the family separation crisis, something not all Texas Democrats are eager to do. “There are emerging questions regarding private prisons and what is their level of accountability … and we’ll continue to look into that,” she said. “We did not figure out everything [with today’s proposals]; we wanted to take a first step, and say the State of Texas has a role in this.”