#EndFamilyDetention

May 31, 2017
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The Associated Press

Texas immigration lockdowns holding some families too long

 Afghan asylum seeker Samira Hakimi and her family members — three of them young children — have spent six months inside a Texas immigration lockdown, even though state lawmakers adjourned this week without passing legislation to circumvent federal rules on housing minors at such facilities.

The proposals that died in the legislative session would have licensed the immigrant detention facilities as childcare providers to avoid a requirement stipulating minors can be held no longer than 20 days.

Immigrant welfare advocates celebrated the failure of the bills, which they said would have caused further physical and psychological harm to children. Still, the federal government continues to hold some families long past the allotted time.

“The failure of the bill as good of news as that is doesn’t seem to have done these families any good,” said Cristina Parker, immigration programs coordinator for the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.

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Denise Gilman, director of the University of Texas immigration law clinic, said the prolonged detentions are a clear violation of the law.

One bill, conceived by lobbyists for the for-profit prison company GEO Group, would have allowed the state’s health department to waive minimum childcare licensing standards for GEO’s 832-bed facility and a 2,400-bed one operated by another private prison company.

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But fellow Republican state Rep. Byron Cook, who heads the powerful Texas House State Affairs Committee, declined to hold a vote on the proposal because he said “there was a lot of anguish” about it. Pediatricians and child welfare advocates were among dozens of people in a hearing to decry the bill, claiming it indeed served to prolong detention, harming children physically and psychologically.

“This affirms the fact that the state does not have the ability to license the facilities at all,” Parker said.

The U.S. government began the long-term detention of families in 2014, responding to an influx of women and children seeking asylum from record gang violence in Central America — but by the following year a federal judge ruled against holding kids in locked facilities unlicensed as childcare providers beyond 20 days. Then Texas attempted to license the facilities, but a state judge ruled they weren’t fit to be licensed.

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Fischer, Parker and Gilman all said that at this point, even 20-day stays violated the law — because the 2015 court ruling ordered that except in times of immigration surges, three days is the maximum allowed detention for children. Currently, border crossers are at a low.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not comment on the prolonged detention of the Hakimis or other families, but said that “ICE makes determinations on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current guidelines and legal mandates.” Read more about Texas immigration lockdowns holding some families too long

May 10, 2017
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teleSUR

Texas Senate Passes 'Baby Jail' Bill Backed by Prison Company

Senate Bill 1018 was advanced with a wide margin of 20-11 votes along party lines, with all the Senate Republicans voting in favor.

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. Read more about Texas Senate Passes 'Baby Jail' Bill Backed by Prison Company

May 10, 2017
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The San Antonio Current

Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?

This week, Texas lawmakers advanced a bill crafted by for-profit prison interests that would license lockups for asylum-seeking immigrant families as child care providers.

Senate Bill 1018, which would lower state standards for two South Texas immigrant detention centers so they can qualify as Texas-approved "family residential centers," passed its first hurdle in the Texas Senate on Tuesday with a 20-11 vote along party lines. Immigrant rights advocates opposed to it say it's just the state's latest attempt to help keep the family lockups open as federal court orders threaten to shutter them. Democratic lawmakers fighting the bill say it would license "baby jails." 

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The feds' last foray into family detention was at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention center in central Texas that was run by CCA. There, immigration lawyers and human rights activists complained of children dressed in prison-like jumpsuits and kept in small cells for 14 hours a day. A legal challenge by the ACLU ultimately forced the feds to pull children out of Hutto in 2009, citing a longstanding legal settlement that was supposed to bar the feds from ever again holding immigrant kids in a prison-like environment. 

Which is why lawyers challenged the practice of holding kids at Dilley and Karnes, sometimes for months. A year after they opened, a federal judge in California delivered a pair of court rulings that unambiguously condemned the practice of child detention, writing that the government hadn't provided "any competent evidence" to support its argument for jailing asylum-seeking families as a default measure. As part of her ruling, the judge said the feds couldn’t hold kids in facilities that aren’t licensed to house or care for children.

Advocacy groups like Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which has criticized the conditions immigrants are housed in at Dilley and Karnes, thought the courts were on the verge of forcing an end to family detention. After all, when dealing with complaints over facilities like Hutto, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services had previously insisted it had no oversight role over private prison-run immigrant detention centers that house children in Texas and couldn't license them or hold them to a higher standard. 

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Grassroots had to sue to force Texas child welfare officials to even hold apublic hearing on the matter, which did not go particularly well for the agency. Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp condemned the practice of family detention and insisted state licensing would only enable a practice that's destructive to healthy child development. Mothers spoke of being separated from their children for extended periods of time and inadequate medical care. Mental health experts who'd visited the facilities spoke of children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in lockup. Social workers claimed they'd been reprimanded by private prison staff for trying to help suffering mothers or children navigate the facility's grievance process. 

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Then last December, a Travis County judge blocked DFPS from licensing the child lockups, ruling that the state can't arbitrarily lower its standards in order to cover a couple of private prison facilities. 

So lobbyists with the GEO Group, which operates the Karnes detention center, decided to try another route. As the Associated Press reported last month, the company helped draft the proposal now snaking through the Texas Legislature that would give DFPS the authority to license the detention centers. Its supporters argue it's a way to ensure families aren't separated in detention; Democrats arguing against the measure in the Senate Tuesday called it a "vendor bill." 

If the bill passes a third reading in the Senate, it moves on to the state House. Still, it's unclear whether lawmakers will have enough time to send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk before the fast-approaching end of the session on May 29.

But to Grassroots executive director Bob Libal, whose group sued the state over the licensing issue, the episode constitutes just another state attempt to help private prison corporations keep alive the controversial practice of family detention.

"The push to license the family jails has never been about protecting children, but about protecting the profits of private prison companies," Libal said in a prepared statement last month. "The state should stand up to these interests and for the rights of children and reject these unjust bills." Read more about Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?

Apr 26, 2017
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The Texas Observer

Bill to License 'Baby Jails' as Child Care Facilities Clears First Legislative Hurdle

The private prison companies that run detention centers for immigrant kids and their mothers have a problem: They can’t legally hold families for an extended period in Texas unless they are licensed as child care facilities. The Texas Legislature has a solution, though. On Wednesday, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would simply lower the state standards for family detention centers. The prison firms could skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must deal with.

“The point of the bill is to slap a license on the family detention center without substantially changing their operation,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant rights group. “It’s an attempt to maintain and expand the system of for-profit family detention.”

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Senate Bill 1018 would effectively lower state standards for family detention centers in order to license them as child care facilities. For example, the bill would allow DFPS to permit minors to share a room with unrelated adults, as sometimes happens in immigrant detention.

Due to federal court rulings, family detention centers can currently only hold children for a few weeks at a time, but the legislation would allow the centers to detain mothers and children for the duration of their legal cases, which can take months or even longer.

The Associated Press reported last week that SB 1018 was written by a lobbyist for the GEO Group, a prison company that runs the 830-bed Karnes County Residential Center. The facility brings in $55 million per year for the company from the federal government.

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Despite opposition from advocates, formerly detained families and Democratic lawmakers, the bill will now move to the full Senate. Read more about Bill to License 'Baby Jails' as Child Care Facilities Clears First Legislative Hurdle

Apr 4, 2017
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Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

The state calls them family residential centers. Opponents have called them  “prisons for profit” and “little jails.”

On Wednesday, committees in both legislative chambers will address bills that would allow the Department of Family and Protective Services to license Texas facilities that house unauthorized mothers and children while they await their immigration hearings.

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In July 2015, a federal judge ruled that children can live in detention centers only if the centers are licensed by state child welfare agencies. Karnes and the South Texas facility, which is southwest of San Antonio, weren't licensed and faced closure.

To keep them from shuttering, in February 2016 the Department of Family and Protective Services gave itself the authority to license the facilities. Keeping them open helps the state deal with immigration control. But a state district court in December blocked Texas from issuing the licenses.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, author of the Senate bill, said in a meeting of the committee on Veteran Affairs and Border Security last week that his proposal was meant to address the court ruling. Lawmakers on the committee are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday, while members of the House State Affairs committee will hear testimony on an identical bill by Rep. John Raney, R-College Station.

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Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which brought the suit that halted the licensing of the centers, said immigrants have in the past been released to family members in the country after being issued notices to appear in court for their immigration hearings.

Most of these families are asylum seekers, Libal said, so they're not flight risks because there's an incentive for them to return to court and keep in contact with immigration officials. He said that family residential centers are not the only option and that his group would oppose the legislation to license them.

“There’s a whole range [of alternatives] that are less harsh than detaining families,” he said. Read more about Critics say lawmakers are trying to license 'little jails' to hold immigrant families

Mar 30, 2017
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The Huffington Post

Texas Republicans Hope To Give Child Care Licenses To Family Detention Centers

Republican state senators took a first step toward licensing two controversial family detention centers as child care facilities on Wednesday, selling the possible change as a way to keep the Trump administration from splitting up immigrant mothers and children at the border.  

At a hearing of the Texas Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Border Security Committee, Republicans said a bill relaxing standards for child care licenses would help the family detention centers skirt problems posed by ongoing lawsuits.

But critics ― including legal groups, members of the Catholic Church and immigrant rights advocates ― described family detention centers as little more than “baby jails.” Citing the fact that most of the mothers and children in detention are Central Americans fleeing violence who apply for asylum, they say there’s no need for family detention centers at all.

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The Obama administration hastily expanded the all-but-abandoned family detention policy back in 2014, as tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossed into the United States. Two family immigrant detention centers, both run by private prison contractors, currently operate in Texas. But the policy of detaining mothers with their children for extended periods has prompted lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled in 2015 that locking up immigrant children with their mothers violated the Flores settlement, which requires children to be detained in non-secure facilities and generally favors their release. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services issued emergency rules that year to reclassify the state’s detention centers as “child care” facilities under state law to help them comply with the ruling.

But in a case brought by former detainees and the activist group Grassroots Leadership, a state judge later ruled that family detention centers simply don’t fit the definition of a child care facility under Texas law.

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And authorities wouldn’t actually have to separate mothers and children at the border if the family detention centers became adult facilities. Nothing in immigration law requires them to be detained at all.

In practice, many of the undocumented women and children apprehended by authorities never see the inside of a detention center after crossing into the United States. Instead, they receive a notice to appear in immigration court and fight their cases from outside detention. Most of them petition for asylum or some other permission to stay in the United States for humanitarian reasons. Read more about Texas Republicans Hope To Give Child Care Licenses To Family Detention Centers

Mar 30, 2017
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Rewire

Texas GOP: Treat Detention Centers as Child-Care Facilities

Republican-backed legislation introduced in the Texas legislature would enable the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to license two family detention centers as child-care facilities, while allowing the department to exempt these facilities from state rules.

Family detention is the policy of jailing asylum-seeking immigrant mothers with their children, including babies. The family detention centers in question are the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City. The bills would strike down a law that prevents DFPS from issuing child-care licenses, essentially allowing prison-like detention centers to operate as child-care facilities with reduced standards. For example, multiple families could be detained in one room, which isn’t allowed in child-care facilities outside of immigration detention.

Advocates assert that the GOP effort to allow DFPS to license these facilities has nothing to do with concern for children or providing oversight to the detention centers. Rather, it is to make sure the deadly private prison companies that run these family detention centers—the GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America—continue reaping profits.

Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based human rights organization Grassroots Leadership, said it’s also about acting in the best interest of the federal government.

“The stated reason from DFPS for pushing for these licenses is so they can regulate the facilities and do inspections, but that’s not the truth. It’s really about slapping licenses on these facilities, while also not making them come up to licensing standards,” Libal said. “This is all very political. This is happening because [DFPS] wanted to help the federal government detain children and families. This is not in the interest of children; it’s about upholding the Flores legislation.”

In 1997, the settlement agreement in Flores v. Lynch confirmed that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. Rather than closing these family detention centers, DFPS and the state of Texas has pushed to have them licensed. Despite not being licensed, these facilities continue to operate in violation of federal law.

People who had been held in family detention, as well as immigration and child-welfare advocates, spoke out at a Wednesday hearing in opposition to the proposed bills.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the bills, Libal said, is that they give the DFPS commissioner the ability to change standards or reduce them further.

“There’s a reason why people from the American Academy of Pediatrics and similar groups, that usually don’t work around immigration, are speaking out: Because this is bad for children,” Libal said. “If you read the bill, it says that the commissioner would have this power in part, for the operation of the facility. This means they can change the standards on the books in order for private prison companies to operate these facilities however they want to. This isn’t a regulation regime that improves standards; it allows for current operations to exist as private prison corporations design them.”

The practice of family detention has been deemed inhumane and is known to be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, but the family detention system will only grow under President Trump. The new administration is following in the footsteps of President Obama, targeting Central American asylum seekers and expanding immigrant detention. Just three months into Trump’s presidency, the private prison industry is booming, with companies like GEO and CoreCivic, known for human rights abuses andin-custody deaths, standing to benefit further.

Libal said that despite public opposition to the bills, GOP lawmakers seem in favor of moving them forward.

“There’s no telling what will happen in the Texas legislature, but we’ll just keep speaking out,” Libal said. “I have a lot of concerns for the future of family detention. These licenses are just a way to avoid the implications of federal litigation that have to do with standards that should be used when caring for children. This is an immigration issue, but it’s also a children’s rights issue. These bills are absolutely the wrong way to go forward.” Read more about Texas GOP: Treat Detention Centers as Child-Care Facilities

Dec 20, 2016
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AlterNet

Mothers Incarcerated With Their Children in Obama's Disgraceful Family Prisons Want Freedom for the Holidays

“We are desperate because this will be the second Christmas that our children have to spend here,” 17 mothers incarcerated at the Berks County Family Detention Center wrote in a recent joint letter to state authorities,publicized by the advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership. “This is in addition to all the other special dates—such as the birthdays of our children and our own, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.—that we have had to spend in this jail… We ask you, 17 desperate mothers, to give the biggest gift to our children of being able to spend Christmas among family.”

Nearly 500 mothers and children are locked up in Berks, one of three remaining “family detention centers” in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration responded to the crisis of violent displacement from Central American countries by incarcerating mothers with their children in facilities that human rights observers say amount to prisons.

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With Donald Trump slated to take the White House in a month, advocates say now is a vital time for the Obama administration to shut down the facilities and disavow their legacy. While it is difficult to predict what policies the incoming administration will unleash, the president-elect has threatened mass deportations targeting 11 million undocumented people in the United States, including up to three million forced evictions in the first 100 days.

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“Instead of handing the keys to these prisons to Donald Trump, Obama can instead end this now," said Cristina Parker, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership. “Family detention is a national disgrace, and a blemish on Obama’s already-terrible record on deportations." Read more about Mothers Incarcerated With Their Children in Obama's Disgraceful Family Prisons Want Freedom for the Holidays

Nov 17, 2016
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Broadly

Trump’s Win Has Already Boosted Stocks of Private Prison Companies

Deporting one immigrant costs about $10,000. According to the United States Department of Justice, the government spends approximately $5,600 on each immigrant held in a detention center. Trump has vowedto deport two to three million immigrants when he takes office in January, which means the US could spend nearly $17 billion on detention in the coming few years. 

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"Federal immigrant detention is the private prison cash cow," says Cristina Parker, the director of immigration programs at Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that focuses on the private prison industry. "Stocks going up was a very rational response to someone saying he's going to greatly expand the police state and deportation machine."

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"They were on the run, their stocks dropped, shareholders were suing them, things were looking really bad for them," Parker says. "Trump changed all that."

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In one letter sent to Grassroots Leadership by 11 women at the CoreCivic-run Laredo detention center, inmates complained about inadequate medical care and access to lawyers and other representation. One woman said that they'd been kept in a cold room overnight, leading her to develop a severe cold. Another, who has diabetes, said she had to hide bread from the guards so that she could eat it in secret when her blood sugar gets low. The women also complained of black water flooding the facilities, being given food that made them ill, and being denied access to the bathroom.

"When we go out for recreation they watch over us with shotguns in their hands as if we were criminals," one woman wrote to Grassroots Leadership. "Since because of the physical damages that I already have in my body from firearms and the psychological impact of that, they make me feel afraid." Read more about Trump’s Win Has Already Boosted Stocks of Private Prison Companies

Oct 26, 2016
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Texas Observor

Guatemala Mom, Son Win Surprise Victory for Sanctuary Movement

A Guatemalan mom and son who have been living in Sanctuary in Austin have finally received a form of deportation relief for the next year. Hilda Ramirez and her son Ivan had been living in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for the past 8 months under threat of deportation back to Guatemala. Hilda and her son came to the U.S. in August of 2014 seeking asylum, and spent the next 11 months in the for-profit Karnes Family Residential Facility. Hilda and Ivan were then released from Karnes due to a separate Special Immigrant Juvenile status that Ivan applied for, and because a federal judge had recently ruled against prolonged family detention. 

The two were living at an Austin-area shelter in January when the Obama administration announced a new set of removal priorities that targeted adults who entered the United States with children after May 2014. Despite Ivan’s ongoing application, an order of deportation remained active for both of them.

That’s when Ramirez connected with organizers at Austin’s Grassroots Leadership and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, where she and Ivan took sanctuary, invoking a long-standing practice in which places of worship house and advocate for immigrants, taking advantage of ICE’s policy of avoiding “sensitive locations.”

Eight months later, ICE informed the family’s lawyer that they would receive relief from deportation in the form of deferred action, which protects them for one year before they must renew the status.

“This is an important step,” said Grassroots’ immigration organizer Alejandro Caceres, “but we need to see more faith communities like St. Andrew’s standing up and saying to ICE: ‘You’ll have to get through us first.’”

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Advocates, explained Caceres, had been demanding a stay of removal, a form of relief designed for immigrants who have exhausted all of their legal options and which ICE has granted to other immigrants in sanctuary. Instead, ICE granted deferred action, which is normally given to those who never went through deportation proceedings. A key difference is that Ramirez and her son will not have to attend regular ICE check-ins.

“I can only think it was the community pressure,” Caceres told the Observer, “and they just wanted to make us leave them alone.” It remains uncertain whether ICE will grant the same relief in similar cases going forward. Caceres added that the Austin movement will continue to push for permanent cancellation of removal in the case.

Read more about Guatemala Mom, Son Win Surprise Victory for Sanctuary Movement

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