Under pressure, NJ sells stock in private prison firm running immigrant detention centers

Via North Jersey Record |James Nash and Monsy Alvarado

New Jersey’s pension fund is selling $1.3 million in stock in a company that runs 11 processing centers for illegal immigrants on behalf of the federal government, after activists contrasted the holding with Gov. Phil Murphy’s pro-immigrant rhetoric.

The state pension fund is shedding its investment in GEO Group, a Florida-based operator of private prisons and immigrant detention centers, after a national outcry over family separations at the border in June drew attention to the role of private companies running detention centers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Murphy condemned the family separations and, in response to questions from The Record and NorthJersey.com in July about Bergen County getting federal money to house detained immigrants, the Democratic governor said he “believes that New Jersey must not partake in the wrongful targeting of immigrants by the federal government.”

But even as Murphy and other state leaders spoke out, the New Jersey State Employees Deferred Compensation Plan, which is separate from and much smaller than the pension fund, was quietly buying stock in GEO Group and CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based company that also operates immigrant detention centers, including the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that the $548 million deferred comp fund bought $981,000 in stock in GEO Group and CoreCivic in July, as the companies’ stock surged in part due to the Trump administration’s more aggressive approach to capturing and detaining people who cross the border without papers. The holdings were first reported by Documented NY, a news website that covers immigration from New York City.

The deferred comp fund, which is managed by Prudential Financial and supplements pensions and other retirement income for employees who opt in, has not divested those holdings.

After The Record and NorthJersey.com asked state Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio’s office about investments in GEO Group and CoreCivic by both the deferred comp fund and the $78.6 billion pension fund, spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino announced that the fund had identified a single $1.3 million holding in GEO Group and would sell it. She could not say when the state purchased the stock.

The action comes as the state aligns its pension investments with values espoused by Murphy and other leaders, such as environmental and social responsibility.

“Our Division of Investment has reviewed the investment merits, including consideration of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, and consistent with its fiduciary responsibility elected to sell the security,” Sciortino said in a statement referring to the GEO Group stock. “Issues such as this underscore the need to have a formalized ESG policy in place to help inform investment decisions.”

She did not explain why the deferred comp fund is retaining its GEO Group and CoreCivic holdings.

Both companies have said they are being scapegoated for federal policies they did not develop. GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez decried what he called “politically motivated attacks” on his company, which he said takes no position on federal immigration policy.

“Pension funds and other institutions should not allow politics to play a role in investment decisions,” Paez said in a written statement.

He and CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist noted that none of the company’s detention centers house unaccompanied minors.

“CoreCivic plays a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system, which we have done for every administration – Democrat and Republican – for more than 30 years,” Gilchrist said in a statement. “While we know this is a highly charged, emotional issue for many people, much of the information about our company being shared by special interest groups is wrong and politically motivated, resulting in some investors reaching misguided conclusions about what we do.”

New Jersey-based ICE spokesman Emilio Dabul could not say how many immigrants are housed in the Elizabeth facility, for which the federal government pays CoreCivic $136 per detainee per day. GEO Group formerly managed Delaney Hall Detention Facility, a Newark-based immigrant detention center.

Immigrant-rights organizations had urged the Murphy administration to cut ties with all companies involved in the Trump administration’s immigration practices. They noted that New Jersey has the third-highest percentage of foreign-born residents among states.

“To financially benefit off the separation of families is immoral, and all officials across the state must evaluate where they stand — do they condemn family separation and stand with the community against the agencies that are responsible for it, or do they prioritize money over families?” said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, in a statement.

Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro declined to comment, referring questions to Muoio’s office.

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