President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that ends family separations at the border by indefinitely detaining parents and children together. Such a policy is illegal. It violates a 20-year-old court settlement called the Flores Agreement, which limits how long and under what conditions children can be kept in immigration-detention facilities. Choosing to ignore Flores allows Trump to put children in the same cages as their parents, indefinitely, for those accused of the misdemeanor of unauthorized border crossing. It will create a Guantánamo in the Southwest United States.
It would also directly benefit the two largest private-prison companies in America, Geo Group and CoreCivic, who run massive family-detention facilities in southern Texas that previously could only hold children with their families for up to 20 days. Authorizing Trump hotels with open-ended stays would be great for business.
Attempts to deter a 2014 migrant influx led to the construction of two giant family-detention centers for women and children in Texas, one for each major private-prison company: the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, which is run by CCA, and the Karnes Residential Center, run by Geo Group. A federal case-management system for family detention went to Geo Care, a subsidiary of Geo Group, until it was shuttered last year. Geo Group also ran an electronic monitoring system for families sent off to await court appearances or asylum hearings.
According to a 2015 Grassroots Leadership report, CCA, Geo Group, and their counterparts operate 62 percent of all immigration-detention centers. Their business model was bolstered by a congressional quota mandating that ICE maintain 34,000 detention beds every day, whether filled or not.
This was a smart diversification strategy for private-prison companies that, during the Obama administration, witnessed declines in violent crime and bipartisan agreements on alternatives to harsh over-sentencing. The stalemate on immigration and the arms race to prove toughness on border security represented a growth opportunity.
But the family-detention centers proved disastrous. Incredibly, Texas unsuccessfully attempted to get Dilley and Karnes labeled as childcare centers—with the Obama administration’s help—so they could house children. But the facilities were nicknamed “baby jails” and compared to Japanese internment camps. Dilley was cited for dozens of violations of state regulations, including recurrent child illnesses. At Karnes, Geo Group was accused of locking mothers in dark rooms as punishment for protesting conditions.