Published 8:24 am Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Two facilities that house immigrants seeking asylum while they await legal hearings would be permitted to continue to house children under a bill tentatively passed by the Senate on Tuesday. In 2015, two federal family residential centers were opened in Texas near San Antonio to house immigrants entering the US seeking asylum with their children. A lawsuit filed against this practice prevailed, with the court ruling that any facility that houses children must be licensed by the state through the Department of Family and Protective Services, like any other residential center. DFPS granted the facilities an emergency license, but another lawsuit resulted in a ruling that these centers cannot qualify for licenses. In response to this, Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola offered a bill, SB 1018 Tuesday that would permit the state to license these facilities. He says without the bill, the facilities will close.  “If these facilities close, then the Feds must either release these folks and hope they return for their hearings or separate the children from the parents,” said Hughes.   “Neither of those feels like an acceptable solution.”

This bill was opposed by some members. One of the facilities, located in Karnes City near San Antonio, was originally constructed as a prison. Senator Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, whose district contains the facility, doesn’t think that’s a good place to keep kids. “These facilities were not designed for children,” he said.   Hughes replied that the facility was reconfigured, and now offers a much less restrictive environment including health care services and recreational facilities. He added that state oversight over the facilities would ensure that the state has a role in making sure they conform to standards. “This bill says the state, our Department of Family and Protective Services….let’s send them in there and do what needs to be done,” said Hughes.   Uresti also contested language that allows DFPS to waive certain standards as determined by the commissioner.   The bill would permit the DFPS Executive Commissioner to exempt these facilities from minimum standards to keep families intact, but also for any purpose to ” operate the family residential center.” Uresti saw this provision as overly broad and worried that it gave the agency a blank check to issue licenses regardless of conditions. Hughes said that agency officials testified in committee that the language was necessary to keep parents and children together, and would only be used for that purpose. The bill received tentative approval on a vote of 20-11 and will likely face a final vote later in the week.

Also Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill that would expand the definition of hazing. SB 50 by Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini would include coercion to consume alcohol under the crime of hazing. It would also classify coercion to incite a person to break a state law as hazing. Hazing in Texas is a class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. If the hazing causes serious bodily harm, the crime becomes a class A misdemeanor, which can mean a year in jail. For hazing incidents that result in death, the perpetrators face a state jail felony. The bill also expanded protections for people reporting hazing, offering them immunity if they report hazing incidents before being contacted by police and cooperate with investigations into the reported event.  The bill now heads to the House.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, May 10 at 11 a.m.