AUSTIN, Texas — A top private prison company is struggling to convince Texas lawmakers to license one of its facilities to hold immigrant parents and their children together — a practice that President Donald Trump’s administration recently committed to upholding.
The Karnes Residential Center, 60 miles south of San Antonio, opened as a family detention center in 2014 and used to hold detainees for months, until a federal judge ruled that children held longer than 20 days must be housed in “non-secure” facilities with child care licenses.
After the Texas Department of Family Protective Services granted Karnes a license, advocates sued, saying that holding children in detention causes psychological and physical harm. A state judge ruled last year that family detention centers did not qualify for licenses.
Now legislators are considering easing requirements for child care facilities, but opponents say the bill would license the centers without improving conditions. Attorneys have warned that it could invite a costly lawsuit.
A state representative who introduced the measure acknowledged that the proposed legislation came directly from GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company, which operates Karnes.
“I’ve known the lady who’s their lobbyist for a long time ...That’s where the legislation came from,” said state Rep. John Raney, a Republican from the rural town of Bryan. “We don’t make things up. People bring things to us and ask us to help.”
Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said parents and children caught crossing the Mexican border would generally be allowed to stay together. His comment to a Senate committee contrasted with earlier pronouncements that his agency was considering separating families as a deterrent to would-be border crossers, mostly from Central America.
Kelly said families caught crossing the border illegally generally would not be separated unless the “situation at the time requires it.” He gave as examples the mother being sick or addicted to drugs. But he said separation would not be routine.