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Bill that would license "baby jails" dies in the Texas House

A bill before the Texas House of Representatives that would allow the licensing of family detention centers as child care facilities has died, reports The Eagle.

The bill, which was authored by by Rep. John Raney, was not heard before Thursday's midnight deadline to hear bills. The bill, House Bill 2225, would have allowed the two family detention centers located in Texas to be licensed as child care facilities. By licensing the facilities, the women and children detained in these detention camps could have been detained for even longer periods of time. The Senate version of the same bill was passed 20-11 along party lines and was referred to a House committee, where it could still be sent to to the House floor for a vote.

Rep. Raney stated that the bill would put an end to the legal dispute over the licensing of family detention centers in Texas. Following a ruling by a federal judge stating children could not be detained in secure facilities, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services approved a rule that would allow them to license the facilities. This was challenged in court by immigrant families, and led to an Austin-area judge issuing a final judgment saying that the family detention centers could not be licensed. That ruling is currently being appealed by the Texas Attorney General.

Rep. Raney then admitted that the bill was written by a lobbyist for the GEO Group who is a "longtime friend" of his. That is unsurprising, as the GEO Group is one of two private prison companies that operate family detention centers in Texas. The company would profit from the additional time that women and children would spend detained, as they are normally paid a per diem rate for each individual detained.

Following GEO's purchase of two correctional facilities and being awarded a new contract, this is a welcome setback for private prisons here in Texas.

Texas Attorney General appeals licensing case

On Monday the Texas attorney general appealed a judge's ruling that prevents two federal family detention centers in South Texas from being licensed as child care facilities, reports ABC News.

As we reported earlier, Judge Karin Crump ruled that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) could not license the South Texas Family Residential Facility in Dilley, Texas, or the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. This lawsuit was filed by immigrant families who had been detained in those facilities, who argued that the state’s motivation for licensing the facilities is to defend harsh federal immigration enforcement rather than to protect children. The temporary restraining order from Judge Crump prevented the licensing of the Dilley facility, and invalidated the license for the Karnes facility, which had been granted before the lawsuit began.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an appeal in order to have the two facilities licensed by DFPS, following the ruling by a federal judge last year that immigrant children would have to be released if the facilities were not licensed. The attorney general's office argued earlier this year that the licensing would improve safety because it requires improved background checks for employees and requires facilities to comply with unannounced inspections. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reviewing the ruling and a spokesperson has said that “operational activities continue without interruption at this time.”

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Judge extends temporary restraining order in family detention licensing lawsuit

Satsuki Ina speaks to the press before testifying at a DFPS hearing against the licensing.
In a May 13 court hearing, District Judge Karin Crump heard arguments on whether the state has authority to issue childcare licenses to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to a report from the Austin-American Statesman. 

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit — two detained mothers and advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership — asserted that the prison-like conditions of these family detention centers make them no place for children. Moreover, they argued that the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) cannot rewrite the rules to give itself power to regulate the facilities.

Four detained mothers testified Friday that after fleeing violence in their countries, instead of finding help they now feel incarcerated. They mentioned trouble sleeping because of guards entering their rooms every half hour, being served the same meals repeatedly, and children getting sick from water that tastes like chlorine.

One mother, identified as E.G.S., fleeing sexual violence in El Salvador, told the judge that her daughter had been sexually assaulted by another detained women while at the Karnes family detention camp.

The Austin-American Statesman reports that the Texas attorney general's office, as well as attorneys for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which operate the Dilley and Karnes family detention camps, argued that licensing the facilities would provide oversight that would enhance the safety of the children detained there. They pointed to the licensing process at Karnes as a success, as five employees were dismissed as a result of background checks conducted during the licensing process.

Pursuing licensing of the detention centers represents a major shift for the agency, which asserted for a decade that it did not have the authority to do so.

District Judge Karin Crump seemed skeptical of the state’s change of heart, asking, “How do you reconcile your own commissioner’s letter … where Commissioner (John) Specia very specifically stated that DFPS doesn’t have jurisdiction to do what you have done?”

Judge Crump extended the temporary restraining order preventing the licensing of the Dilley family detention camp until June 1 when she will hear further evidence in the case. She is now weighing whether to issue a temporary restraining order that would invalidate the new DFPS rule altogether that had allowed the Karnes family detention camp to obtain a license.

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ICE director says changes are coming to Karnes family detention facility

The Karnes County Family Detention Center has shown evidence of renovation and expansion since mid-September 2014.
The Karnes County Family Detention Center has shown evidence of renovation and expansion since mid-September 2014.
The head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told members of Congress on Thursday that the immigrant family detention center in Karnes County, Texas will be converted to an all-male facility, adding “possibly with children.”

The Guardian reported the exchange between Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-California and ICE Director Sarah Saldaña:

During a House appropriations committee hearing Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard asked the ICE director, Sarah Saldaña: “is it possible that ICE will stop using Karnes and Dilley [another facility] for families in [fiscal year 2017]?” “Well, we’re pretty much there on the decision on Karnes,” Saldaña responded. “We are probably going to convert that into – our plans are to convert that into – an adult male, perhaps with children, facility. Not a family facility as it is now, with largely women.”

The news was a surprise to advocates who have been monitoring the family detention centers closely. Mohammad Abdollahi of RAICES told the Texas Observer that the statement was the first anyone had heard about a change at Karnes. The Observer reports, “He said immigrant rights groups in Texas and D.C. meet with ICE officials regularly to discuss problems surrounding family detention, but no one made any mention of the plan. ‘For us, it’s kind of like we have to see it before we believe it,’ Abdollahi told the Observer. ‘We don’t really have much faith in it at the moment because … it was never brought to us.’”

This development comes as a lengthy fight over state-issued child care licenses continues for the Karnes detention center and a similar one in Dilley.

The detention center in Karnes County was an all-male immigrant detention facility until August 1, 2014, when ICE officials converted it to a family detention center in line with a policy that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Sec. Jeh Johnson described at the time as sending a message to Central American women and children: "we will send you back."

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