The Texas Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would make it easier for the state to license privately run detention centers as "family residential centers" in order to hold immigrant families in detention centers longer.

Senate Bill 1018 by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineloa, would ease the guidelines the centers must meet in order to be recognized as family residential centers. According to the Texas Pediatric Society, which opposes the measure, the legislation would allow the state to exempt the facilities from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Service's general residential operations standards. 

Opponents of the bill call the facilities “baby jails” and say the measure is nothing more than a nod to the powerful prison companies. But Hughes said the legislation is meant to ensure immigrants are held in safe facilities until they appear before an immigration judge, adding that it will lessen the chance immigrants will abscond.

The facilities in question are in Karnes City, which is operated by The Geo Group, and in Dilley, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. They are under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house the immigrants, who are part of the surge of unauthorized immigration from Central America that began in 2014.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The measure passed to engrossment on a 20-11 party-line vote after several Democrats asked Hughes why he thought the measure was wise despite being opposed by pediatric, faith-based and immigrant rights groups.

“Does that not concern you that you have these well-respected groups opposing this bill?” asked state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

Obtaining licenses for the centers became necessary after a July 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who ordered that immigrants held in Texas and elsewhere be released as soon as possible because their detention violates the provisions of a 1997 legal settlement — the Flores v. Meese agreement — requiring that undocumented juveniles be held in the places that protect their overall health and safety.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services moved quickly after the ruling to try to license the centers permanently, but state district Judge Karin Crump of Travis County ruled against the state.

The legislation, if passed, would circumvent that ruling and allow the facilities to hold the immigrants longer than the current 20-day limit.

Uresti also noted during the debate that of the dozens of witnesses who testified in committee, only three were for the bill – and they were all connected to the GEO Group, according to the witness list.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“This is a vendor bill if I’ve ever seen one,” state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who cited an April 20 story by the Associated Press that quoted state Rep. John Raney, R-Bryan, as stating that GEO asked him to file the legislation. (Raney has a companion bill in the Texas House.)

But bill co-author Charles Perry, a Republican senator from Lubbock, said the bill would help keep families together, which he said was a main concern of immigrant rights groups.

The bill must now pass the Senate on third reading and make it through the House before the Legislature adjourns on Memorial Day.

Get The Brief

Never miss a moment in Texas politics with our daily newsletter.