A Republican state representative admits that he is promoting a bill written by the private prison corporation GEO Group. The bill would make it easier for private prison corporations to help the federal government lock up migrant families. “I’ve known the lady who’s their lobbyist for a long time,” Representative John Raney reportedly told the Associated Press. “That’s where the legislation came from.”
The second-largest private prison operator in the United States, GEO runs an immigration prison in Karnes City, Texas, about sixty miles south of San Antonio, where it holds entire families of migrants while the federal government decides if they will be allowed to remain in the country. Known officially as the Karnes County Residential Center, advocates describe GEO’s facility as a “baby jail.”
In December, a Texas court agreed with advocates that the state’s child welfare agency could not license the Karnes site as a child-care center. A federal court in California had previously concluded that a 1997 legal settlement prohibits DHS from holding children in unlicensed facilities. To comply with those court orders, Texas officials have been trying to fit the Karnes facility into the state’s child-care licensing requirements. GEO’s larger competitor CoreCivic (previously known as the Corrections Corporation of America) runs a family immigration prison in Dilley, Texas.
Raney’s proposal, House Bill 2225, would explicitly authorize the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to license “family residential centers” under contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. If enacted, the bill would let private prison corporations like GEO and CoreCivic detain children alongside parents or other adult family members. It would also allow the child-welfare agency’s commissioner to waive any standard otherwise applicable to child-care centers.
Detaining children is troubling. Locked in prison-like conditions, children suffer heavily the emotional and psychological toll of confinement simply for entering the United States without the federal government’s permission. Detained children frequently exhibit high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. They often exhibit behavioral problems and developmental delays. On the contrary, there is no evidence suggesting that any amount of detention is safe for children. For that reason, the American Academy of Pediatricians recently called for DHS to “discontinue the general use of family detention.” Instead, government officials should always “prioritize the best interests of the child,” with an emphasis on keeping kids and parents together outside of jail.
Rather than focus on the best interests of migrant children, Representative Raney’s bill pushes the best interests of the private prison industry. Without a state license, GEO and CoreCivic stand to lose their lucrative contracts for family immigration prisons. Raney’s bill would prevent that. Yet with a market capitalization of $3.97 billion, GEO Group seems capable of promoting its own interests. It knows exactly how to reach politicians. In 2016, the company spent approximately $1 million lobbying the federal government and another $775,000 on direct contributions to members of Congress. News reports indicate that GEO donated almost half a million dollars to President Trump’s inauguration. Earlier this month the company announced that it won the Trump Administration’s first contract for a major ICE detention center buildup: a 1,000-bed facility north of Houston for adult migrants that the company expects to yield $110 million. In Texas, top private prison corporations, including GEO and CoreCivic, employ ten lobbyists to target elected officials. GEO alone is spending between $150,00 and $320,000 on five lobbyists. Up until now, Raney has not been anywhere near the top of the list of individual recipients of private prison industry largess. From 2013 to 2016, he appears to have collected a measly $500.
Despite not having received much money—yet—from private prison corporations, Raney’s decision to push legislation that GEO Group wrote is deeply troubling. No Texan voted to send GEO or its lobbyists to the state capitol. And unlike GEO Group, most Texans can’t afford a team of lobbyists who have their representatives’ ear. By walking GEO’s bill to the state house floor, Raney is giving the deep-pocketed private prison industry a direct role in Texas’ democracy. That tarnishes the democratic process. And it does so at the expense of children and families who are simply waiting for their day in court.