As the legislative session in Texas drew to a close on Monday, immigration advocates around the country celebrated the death of the “baby jails” bill—a measure that would have licensed Texas family detention centers as “child-care facilities.” Senate Bill 1018 was the latest attempt to lower state standards so that private prisons could legally detain asylum-seeking children for many weeks or months on end.
Long criticized for providing inadequate care to families and skirting federal regulations, family detention is the controversial and inhumane practice of placing asylum-seeking mothers and their children behind bars just days after making the treacherous journey to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
The “baby jails” bill sought to further this practice by lowering state childcare standards for family detention centers. If passed, the bill would have excluded “the facilities from regulations such as the ones that prohibit housing children and unrelated adults in the same room.” Another horrific provision would have authorized the government to legally detain immigrant children for longer than 21 days, which is widely understood to be the limit for the confinement of children.
The corrupt financial motivation behind this legislation appears to be clear. The bill, which passed the Texas Senate but failed to hit the Texas House floor in time before receiving a vote, was written by a lobbyist for GEO Group, Inc., the nation’s second-largest private prison corporation. Geo Group happens to operate an 830-bed family detention center in Karnes City, the second largest center in the country, and clearly stood to profit from the bill’s passage. The center in Karnes generates about $55 million a year in profit for Geo Group.
Immigration advocates say that the bill “prioritized profits over children” and questioned the need for family detention centers at all, as the vast majority of mothers and their children who are held in the family detention centers are Central American asylum-seekers fleeing violence.
According to Senator Sylvia Garcia from Houston, “The very idea of having baby jails was unconscionable. To me that this [bill] has died is a good death.” Republican state senators attempted to sell the bill as a way to keep the Trump administration from separating mothers and their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican lawmakers argued that without these licenses, there would be nowhere to place mothers and their children because the family detention centers would have to be converted to adult detention facilities.
Meanwhile, the detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas—two of the country’s three family detention centers which can hold up to 3,200 mother and children—have been operating without child care licenses for the majority of their existence, since 2014; the third, smaller, family detention center in Berks remains unlicensed as Republicans and immigration advocates fight it out in the courts.
It’s important to remember that the death of this bill is just one victory in a state that has long been ground zero in the fight against family detention. Advocates must continue to push for the humane treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in the immigration system.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen.