AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - 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.
Immigration advocates say holding families in detention - a practice adopted by the Obama administration in its own effort to deter border crossers - is just as harmful and that families seeking asylum should be released to pursue their legal cases.
Thirty-three people testified against Raney's bill when it was heard in committee, including pediatricians and psychologists. A similar bill is pending in a Senate committee.
GEO insists that Karnes "provides high-quality care in a safe, humane, and family friendly environment" and that the company "supports any effort to provide appropriate levels of government oversight."
Despite GEO's lobbying, neither version of the child care licensing bill appears likely to pass.
"There were a lot of questions that need to be answered," said Republican state Rep. Byron Cook, chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs, which will have to approve the bill before it can reach the House floor.
A Republican-drawn map setting the boundaries of Texas' statehouse districts violates the U.S. Constitution by intentionally discriminating against minority voters, a federal court found Thursday - the third such ruling against the state's voting laws in roughly a month.
The latest ruling means Texas' strict voter ID law, congressional maps and state legislative maps - all of which were enacted in 2011 - have recently been found in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
For Texas, the stockpiling losses carry the risk of a court punishing the state by demanding approval before changing voting laws. The process, known as "preclearance," was formerly required of Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. But the court kept in place the chance that states could again fall under federal oversight if intentional discrimination is found.
Minority rights groups and Democrats could press a three-judge panel in San Antonio over that possibility at a court hearing later this month in San Antonio, when they're also expected to demand new state and congressional maps for the 2018 elections.
The latest decision concerns how districts were drawn by Republicans for the state House of Representatives, which the GOP now controls 95-55, in addition to every other branch of state government. In a 2-1 ruling, federal judges again found signs of racial gerrymandering and evidence that Republicans intentionally diluted the growing electoral power of minorities around Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and elsewhere.
"Mapmakers improperly used race with an intent to dilute Latino voting strength by wasting Latino votes," read the lengthy opinion about two Dallas districts.
RAISE THE AGE
The Texas House has approved a bill seeking to raise from 17 to 18 the age at which offenders automatically enter Texas' adult legal system.
Thursday's vote sends the proposal by Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton and several bipartisan co-sponsors to the state Senate. A Senate version of the bill is pending in committee but hasn't yet cleared committee there.
Dutton's bill isn't expected to cost the state money in its 2018-2019 budget, but eventually could cost $35-million-plus annually.
Past efforts to "raise the age" stalled in Texas, which leads the nation in executions and relishes its tough-on-crime reputation.
But this session's House bill passed relatively easily, endorsed by youth organizations and criminal justice reform groups, as well as conservatives who want Texas to cut the costs of its prisons.
The House and Senate are both off until Monday at 2 p.m. But next week will be very busy, especially with the anti-sanctuary cities bill set to hit the House floor on Wednesday.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"The impact of the plan was certainly to reduce minority voting opportunity statewide, resulting in even less proportional representation for minority voters" - a three-judge, federal panel declaring that Texas' GOP-controlled Legislature violated the U.S. Constitution while drawing statehouse districts in 2011.
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