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The For-Profit Immigration Imprisonment Racket

Private companies with close ties to government agencies are standing in the way of progress

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent waits outside of the home of a suspect during part of a nationwide immigration sweep in San Diego.
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
February 22, 2013 10:00 AM ET

Immigration officials sought out undocumented immigrants to apprehend for minor crimes in order to boost deportation numbers, a trove of internal correspondence revealed last week. According to USA Today, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees were instructed to dig through DMV records for foreign-born license applicants, patrol traffic checkpoints and verify the immigration status of low-level offenders before their release from local jails – efforts that contradict the agency's pledge to limit expulsion to "dangerous criminals," and encourage racial profiling in order to meet what amount to quotas. "The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target," advised ICE supervisor David Venturella in an email to field officers in April.

The dangerous intimacy between the immigration and criminal justice systems is fostered by executives with high stakes in the human consequences – people like Venturella, who, according to Grassroots Leadership, took a new job in July as Executive Vice President of Corporate Development at the GEO Group, the second highest grossing private prison company in the country.

Is Immigration Reform Finally Happening?

Immigration detention, it turns out, is big business. Industry giants like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) make a lucrative profit off of federal contracts to lock up undocumented immigrants waiting for their deportation hearings. Half of the roughly 400,000 people administratively imprisoned each year are held in private detention centers, and in 2012, the companies raked in $216 million and $208 million respectively from these agreements alone. Charged with minor crimes like shoplifting or traffic violations, detainees pose no threat to public safety yet can languish for months or even years in facilities that – due to cost-cutting measures – fail to protect them from abuse, provide adequate medical care, or ensure contact with family members, the Detention Watch Network reports. A 2011 investigation by Colorlines.com found that the children of parents swept into the detention system regularly end up in foster care.

The Obama administration's record removal rates have forced many to re-enter the country without authorization in order to rejoin their families – a risk with dire repercussions owing to a 2005 program called Operation Streamline, which criminalized border crossing as a misdemeanor, or a felony for those with past deportations. These victimless offenses carry charges of up to six months or up to 20 years in federal prison (depending on the arrestee's previous record), and the resulting overload pushed the Bureau of Prisons to depend more heavily on privately managed beds. In 2011, unauthorized entry and re-entry were the most prosecuted crimes in the federal judicial system, and the government contracted space with CCA and GEO Group for a combined revenue of nearly $1.4 billion.

GEO Group CEO George Foley makes no secret of his corporation's stake in the boom, reports Business Insider. In a 2011 letter to shareholders, he assured them that "at the federal level, initiatives related to border enforcement and immigration detention with an emphasis on criminal alien populations … have continued to create demand for larger-scale, cost efficient facilities." The escalating demand brought about by Operation Streamline has cost taxpayers $5.5 billion since the program's inception – profits that flow straight into the coffers of the private prison industry.

As immigration reform gains momentum in Congress, enforcement and border security remain obstinate doctrine, while the idea of reducing our costly and inhumane reliance on detention and incarceration rarely enters the conversation. This is no accident – both CCA and GEO Group regularly lobby the House and Senate on immigration issues, and the industry has spent $45 million on lobbying and campaign contributions at the state and federal levels over the last decade. What's more, members of the Gang of Eight – the architects of the Senate blueprint tasked with crafting a reform proposal – have significant ties to these companies. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) are top recipients of CCA and GEO Group funds, respectively, having received $32,146 and $27,300 in donations.

These relationships will require careful scrutiny moving forward. More importantly, those impacted by the immigration debate – like the Dreamers who disrupted a House hearing earlier this month – need to be part of the conversation. The CEOs who are getting rich by imprisoning undocumented immigrants are already being heard loud and clear in Washington. It's long past time that the people most affected by their for-profit prison scheme get a voice, too.

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