Oregon politicians have increasingly opposed the federal government’s treatment of undocumented immigrants, particularly families separated at the border. The state touts itself as an immigrant sanctuary, because it bars its law enforcement officers from assisting federal immigration agents.
Yet Oregon invests its public pension funds in ways that benefit the private prison companies that profit from holding as many immigrants in detention as possible. In fact, it’s invested more money than most other states.
As The Guardian first reported last week, the Oregon Public Employee Retirement Fund has funneled at least $2.1 million into shares of the GEO Group and CoreCivic, two government contractors that build and operate immigrant detention centers.
The $2 million invested in private prisons is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the more than $75 billion in Oregon’s public pension funds. And almost every major corporation in America—from Walmart to Facebook—has a passionate set of detractors. Indeed, if state officials managed the pension funds on the whim of activists, it would be difficult to make any sound investment decisions.
But Pamela Quinlan, a Portland lawyer who is urging the state to divest from private prison companies, says these contractors are a different matter.
“No rational person thinks we should have social justice warriors run the [Public Employee Retirement System] fund,” says Quinlan. “But the thing about private prisons is that their business plan is evil. Harm is the aim.”
She says cruel policies like family separation and mass detentions are supported by private prisons because these policies generate profits for the government contractors.
“Do these investment decisions happen in a moral vacuum?” she asks.
State Treasurer Tobias Read, who oversees public pension investments, admits the investments put him in an awkward position. But PERS managers say the investments must be made without considering politics. Oregon has no list of companies it won’t invest in.
“This is one of those inescapable moments where my values come into stark conflict with my legal and fiduciary responsibilities,” Read says. “Managing a large public trust fund exposes you to some corporate decisions that range from shortsighted to illegal to immoral.”
But the Oregon Investment Council can still act as a responsible shareholder—and says it’s doing so.
In May, Oregon joined the vast majority of shareholders who own stock in the GEO Group to demand the company produce a report accounting for its incarceration practices and conditions in its detention centers. After initially resisting the proposal, the GEO Group acquiesced to investors and will produce the report this fall.
Perhaps at no other time have tensions between local politicians and federal immigration officials been higher.
President Donald Trump has threatened raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and suggested ICE would target sanctuary states and cities. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he “oppose[s] this president seeking to target cities based on political differences for these kinds of raids.” ICE has not conducted any raids in the Pacific Northwest. But on July 13, police shot and killed a longtime antifascist activist who attempted to set fire to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., an immigrant detention center run by the GEO Group.
The GEO Group says efforts to divest from the company conflate its detention centers with overcrowded, poorly managed government-run centers.
“The divestment efforts against our company are based on a false narrative and a deliberate mischaracterization of our role as a long-standing government services provider,” a GEO Group spokesman said in a statement. “Contrary to the images of other facilities on the news, our facilities have never been overcrowded, nor have they ever housed unaccompanied minors.”
The state says divesting would be difficult and costly. Oregon does not actively choose the stocks that are part of index funds, like the private prison stocks. To divest, the state would have to sell all of the stocks it holds in the index fund.
“Our choice is to sell the whole fund, and you do so at a big discount,” says John Russell, vice chairman of the Oregon Investment Council. “There are huge numbers of investments that individual people would like us not to be in, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the pension fund.”