President Donald Trump’s executive order ending family separations at the border opts to indefinitely detain families together instead. The Nation reports that this policy will directly benefit the two largest prison companies in the United States: GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. We speak with Bob Libal, the executive director of the Austin-based civil and human rights group Grassroots Leadership. They sued the state of Texas when it tried to classify ICE’s family detention centers as “child care” facilities. They won, but the detention centers continue to operate without a license. His new article in the Texas Observer is headlined, “It’s Time to Decriminalize Immigration.” It is co-authored with Judy Greene.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into this conversation Bob Libal. He’s the executive director of the Austin-based civil and human rights group Grassroots Leadership. Suing the state of Texas when it tried to classify ICE’s family detention centers as child care facilities. They won, but the detention centers continue to operate now without a license. His new article in The Texas Observer is headlined “It’s Time to Decriminalize Immigration,” co-authored with Judy Greene. Can you talk about what this case is all about and where these children are being put?
BOB LIBAL: Sure, and thanks for having me, Amy. As Franco said, this really trades one crisis, one cruel policy, with another. What we know at this point is that as these criminal prosecutions are proceeding and as the asylum cases for these children and for these families continues, that people will be locked up in these giant for-profit family detention camps, the two largest of which are in South Texas.
Now, as Franco said, the Flores settlement says that children cannot be detained in unlicensed and secure detention centers for more—in a prolonged manner. And so the courts have ruled that that means about 20 days. This is clearly a challenge to that settlement. About two years ago, or actually three years ago, the family detention centers went to the state of Texas and tried to apply for child care licenses in an attempt to essentially prolong the detention of immigrant children in these detention camps. We successfully fought back that effort in the courts. The state of Texas tried to rewrite the laws. Actually a private prison corporation, The Geo Group, brought a bill to the state legislature to change the way that licensing happens in Texas. That effort was beaten back in the state legislature.
So for now, these family detention camps are unlicensed. They are certainly secure. They’re prisons. And I think that this is going to be quite the fight about the future of what happens to these children and these moms. And then I think that it is important to recognize that what is driving this policy is the zero-tolerance policy that was implemented by Jeff Sessions. The Trump administration had falsely said that they had no choice, right? That the law says that you have to prosecute everyone that comes to the border. This is not true, and in fact, these laws were used sparingly until about 2004, 2005, when a policy called Operation Streamline was implemented.
The piece that Judy and I wrote in The Texas Observer yesterday makes the argument that if the Trump administration is asking for a legislative fix, that pro-immigrant forces in Congress should give the Trump administration that legislative fix and should introduce legislation that would repeal the laws that allow Jeff Sessions to prosecute people en masse. So to repeal 8 U.S. Code 1325, which is unlawful entry, and 1326, which is unlawful reentry, which are the criminal prosecutions which are driving this entire crisis.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob, I want to go to The Geo Group which you mentioned. During hearings on whether Texas should issue a license to family detention centers, a Honduran woman named Norma who spent more than a month detained at the Karnes County family detention center told a committee about her daughter who turned five while locked up there. Quote, she said “My daughter knew she was a prisoner. I don’t think that a place full of cameras and security guards is a place for children.” Bob, can you say a little bit more about this Geo Group and what role it plays in these detention centers?
BOB LIBAL: Sure. The for-profit detention centers in South Texas, there’s one in Karnes that is operated by Geo Group and one in Dilley that is the nation’s largest immigration detention center at 2,400 beds, that is operated by CoreCivic, which was formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. So these are the two largest for-profit prison corporations. Both of these companies are publicly traded and their stock soared yesterday, which I think gives you an indication of how investors are seeing this policy change as one that is going to benefit the private prison industry.
These facilities are prisons. There is no doubt about that. And I think that the testimony that we have heard repeatedly from the moms and the kids and some of the workers in the facility who have quit in protest indicate that these are no place for children. They’re no place for families. The trauma that people experience of being locked up in these facilities is real. During our litigation and during the legislative fight at the Texas capitol, we heard from pediatricians, we heard from social workers, we heard from formerly detained women and their children, all of whom said, “This is no place for a child.”
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what this crisis at this moment has brought into stark relief for you? You have been working on this issue for a long time. Of course, the for-profit industry like Geo Group helping to draft a Texas law, the corporations being involved with the writing of the laws that would allow the family detention centers to be licensed as childcare facilities without meeting all of the state’s requirements.
BOB LIBAL: Sure. I think this puts into stark contrast what our options are moving forward. I think that everyone who is concerned about the welfare of immigrant children and immigrant families needs to stand up and say that indefinite detention of families in for-profit detention camps is not a solution to family separation. The push at this point needs to be to end family detention, to end family separation and to be really pushing to end the underlying laws that drive these policies. We simply can’t give someone like Jeff Sessions the ability to continue to criminally prosecute people en masse at the border.
I think that this administration has proven that they have no regard for the immigrant children and their parents at the border. And I think that when you see a policy that is implemented that benefits the private prison industry at the expense of immigrant children and their parents, I think that that really tells the entire story.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Bob Libal, with Grassroots Leadership, speaking to us from Austin. Franco Ordoñez, we would like to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’ll talk with a person in McAllen, Texas, who is talking about trying to reunite these children that the Trump administration said as late as last night they have no plans for. They don’t know what to do with these 2,300 children. Stay with us.