The Texas Senate on Tuesday passed a new bill written by the GEO group, the second-largest private prison company in the U.S., that legitimizes the existence of immigrant family detention centers as child care facilities.
The bill’s passage comes amid a slew of anti-immigrant ordinances passed by state lawmakers.
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a group that opposes mass incarceration told the Texas Observer, “It’s outrageous that the Texas Senate just passed a bill bought and paid for by private prison corporations whose sole purpose is to detain immigrant children for longer."
Senate Bill 1018 was advanced with a wide margin of 20-11 votes along party lines, with all the Senate Republicans voting in favor. Three out of four people who approved the bill were GEO members, according to America's Voice, a grassroots nonprofit organization.
The federal government uses these sub-standard family detention centers to hold women and children seeking asylum, and who are often fleeing violence in Central America. According to the federal court rulings, the centers can hold children for few weeks but the new bill would allow the detention centers to hold women and children for the duration of their asylum cases.
“(The bill) is placing a lot of faith in the ability of the state to protect these children, but the bottom line is these are prisons and there’s no question about that,” Sen. Jose Rodriguez told the Texas Observer.
“There may be some TVs here and there, some bunk beds, but it is a secure facility, a baby jail.”
The bill will also give the Department of Family and Protective Services authority to waive any minimum standards necessary in order to license the facilities. Rodriguez also said SB 1018 would lead to “lesser standards and lack of accountability that will result in women and children being harmed.”
According to the Texas Pediatric Society, the facilities cause depression and anxiety and can impede development in children.
Sen. Carlos Uresti told the Texas Observer that 95 percent of asylum-seeking families with legal representation show up to court. They can simply be released to live with family or in shelters while their cases resolve.
Currently, the U.S. has three asylum centers, two of which are located in Texas. Together, these two detention centers can hold up to 3,200 people.
Los Angeles Times published an expose on the GEO group in 2015 and found that the company receives US$55 million annually from the federal government to operate the Karnes County Residential Center, a family detention center south of San Antonio.
The legislation is now set to move to Texas House.