How investors are abolishing ICE — in their portfolios

Via Market Watch | Leslie Albrecht

Protesters are taking financial action in response to the Trump administration’s family separations at the border

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
.Activists march and rally against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Trump administration’s immigration policies in New York City. Some opponents of Trump’s immigration policies are moving their investments.

Protesters have marched in the streets nationwide this summer against the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policies, but some are moving their money instead of their feet.

Retirement savers and investors opposed to the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border — many of whom still haven’t been reunited — are pulling their money out of the companies that help U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement carry out its mission.

“I’m reallocating my investments to make sure I’m not making money off immigrants being detained,” said Kristina King, a 25-year-old public relations professional in New York City. “I wanted to make sure I was not putting my money toward anything that would support that.”

After seeing news reports about children separated from their parents at the border, King discovered that her Roth IRA was invested in the two major publicly-traded private prison operators — The GEO Group, Inc. GEO, -1.85%   and CoreCivic, Inc. CXW, -0.76%   — that run detention facilities where immigrants are held after entering the country illegally. They’re among many companies that are expected to profit from the Trump administration’s hardline border policies. (ICE did not respond to a request for comment. Administration officials have said the stepped-up enforcement is necessary to battle a “crisis” at the border.)

King moved her money to a “socially responsible” ETF. It doesn’t invest in companies that don’t meet certain ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards, including private prison and tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers. It was the first time King had ever changed her investment allocations based on her political beliefs.

She posted in She Spends, a Facebook FB, +1.13%   group about women and money, encouraging others to follow her lead. “If you are investing in anything you need to be aware of where those investments are going,” King told MarketWatch. “Do more than just toss the prospectus out when you get it.”

King isn’t alone. Pat Miguel Tomaino, director of socially responsible investing at Boston-based Zevin Asset Management, said investors have grown increasingly concerned about companies that derive substantial portions of their revenues from prison contracts.

His take: “In the long term, incarceration is a risky industry for investors to be involved in because — essentially — the industry promises growth, which would require greater incarceration, more inequality and greater suffering.”

‘In the long term, incarceration is a risky industry for investors to be involved in because — essentially — the industry promises growth, which would require greater incarceration, more inequality and greater suffering.’

— Pat Miguel Tomaino, director of socially responsible investing, Zevin Asset Management

Universities and pension funds are divesting, too

Investors like King have been inspired by the latest controversy over border policies, but the idea of divesting from the private prison industry is nothing new. It has long been a goal of liberal activists who see private prison companies as profiting off the mass incarceration of low-income blacks and Latinos.

They’ve met with some success among institutional investors. Columbia University became the first U.S. university to pull its money out of private prison companies in 2015 following student protests and the University of California system followed suit a few months later.

When Trump took office, attention shifted to private prison companies’ role in immigration detention. Citing Trump’s border policies, New York City became the first in the country to divest its pension fund from all private prison companies in 2017. This month, New York State’s comptroller announced that the state’s $206.9 billion pension fund will pull out of its direct holdings in private prison companies.

“For nearly two decades, the fund has recognized private prisons is a controversial industry and restricted investments,” Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for comptroller Thomas DiNapoli told the New York Daily News. “The current immigration situation is creating even more risks in their business model, which has consequences for their long term value.”

Kristina King
Kristina King, a 25 year-old public relations professional in New York City, moved investments after realizing her Roth IRA held shares in private prison companies.

Activists are seizing the moment

Advocates are seizing on the firestorm of controversy over Trump’s border policies to educate individual investors about divestment. The Urban Justice Center, a New York nonprofit that provides free legal services for the poor, published a guide this month with step-by-step instructions on how to divest from companies that detain immigrants.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social-justice group based in Philadelphia, is has a free screening tool people can use to check whether their mutual funds own stock in private prison companies. The group is developing a new tool that will focus on companies involved in border enforcement. “The treatment of children has made people much more interested in action to take,” said Dalit Baum, AFSC’s economic activism director.

Small gestures can add up

People can take financial action when they feel helpless in the face of government policies they don’t agree with, says Heidi Feldman, a Georgetown University law and philosophy professor who has studied the history of economic boycotts. She’s been urging people who want to take a stand on border policies to look at what kind of credit card they have, which bank they use, and which investment firm handles their 401(k). Vanguard, for example, owns about 14% of GEO Group’s stock.

Feldman tweeted at her credit-card issuer, Chase, because it’s a subsidiary of JP MorganJPM, +1.16% which finances GEO Group’s debt. A customer service representative responded, asking, “Are you having a problem with your Chase card?” Feldman replied, “Yes. I don’t want to use a card issued by an entity invested in GEO Group.” The customer service rep gave her an email address, and Feldman fired off a letter of protest.

She believes those kind of small gestures can add up to change company behavior. “I can’t call up GEO Group and get anyone on the phone, but I assure you that the heads of investor relations and people from the C-suites of the top five institutional investors absolutely can,” Feldman said.

A JPMorgan Chase & Co. spokesman declined to comment directly on private prison divestment, but pointed to public comments JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has made in support of immigration reform and against family separations at the border. “Fixing these issues will clearly boost the economy and help companies like ours hire great talent, but more importantly, it will reflect our American and core human values of fairness, decency and mutual respect,” Dimon told his employees in a letter last month.

‘I can’t call up GEO Group and get anyone on the phone, but I assure you that the heads of investor relations and people from the C-suites of the top five institutional investors absolutely can.’

— Georgetown University law professor Heidi Feldman

Private prison stocks have shot up in value

Of course, investors who sell their private prison stocks run the risk of missing out on some substantial returns. Share values for The GEO Group and Core Civic had plunged when the Obama administration signaled it was pulling away from private prisons, but Trump’s win reversed that trend, and share prices have only gone up as stepped-up border enforcement has continued.

Core Civic did not respond to a request for comment on divestment. A spokesman for The GEO Group told MarketWatch, “These divestment efforts are misguided and based on a mischaracterization of our company’s role as a long-standing service provider to the federal government and ignore the fact that we do not take a position on, nor have we ever advocated for or against, immigration enforcement or detention policies.”

Spokesman Pablo Paez also noted that The GEO Group has never housed unaccompanied children at the detention facilities it manages for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

‘We understand that some investors may wish to avoid certain companies’

A spokeswoman for 401(k) giant Vanguard said she couldn’t comment directly on individual companies or holdings, but added that the issue of family separations was “deeply saddening.”

“While private prison companies make up a very modest portion of the Vanguard funds’ portfolios, and are largely held in index-tracking funds, we understand that some investors may wish to avoid certain companies altogether,” spokeswoman Carolyn Wegemann said. Vanguard customers who want to screen out those companies can use Vanguard’s search tool or may want to consider Vanguard’s FTSE Social Index Fund, which screens companies based on certain social, human rights, and environmental criteria, Wegemann said.

‘I don’t want that kind of profit in my portfolio’

King, the PR professional who moved her money out of GEO Group and Core Civic, said she has no worries about potentially losing money. “Am I giving up a profit by divesting from these companies? Maybe. But I don’t want to make money off the exploitation, imprisonment and violation of vulnerable populations. If that means I’m giving up on potential money, that’s fine — I don’t want that kind of profit in my portfolio. My financial success shouldn’t be dependent on someone else’s pain.”

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