By: Laura Carlsen
Director, Mexico City-based Americas Program of the Center for International Policy; columnist,
As the immigration reform debate heats up, an important argument has been surprisingly missing. By granting legal status to immigrants and ordering future flows, the government could save billions of dollars. A shift to focus border security on real crime, both local and cross-border, would increase public safety and render a huge dividend to cash-strapped public coffers.
This kind of common-sense immigration reform has the multibillion-dollar private prison industry shaking in its boots. Its lobbyists are actively targeting members of congressional budget and appropriations committees to not only maintain, but increase incarceration of migrants — with or without comprehensive immigration reform.
While a broad public consensus has formed around the need to legally integrate migrants into the communities where they live and work, private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, thrive off laws that criminalize migrants, including mandatory detention and the definition of immigration violations as felonies. They are using their money and clout to assure that even if immigration reform goes through, the practice of locking people up for immigration infractions will continue.
Their No. 1 goal: to assure that Operation Streamline — their goose of the golden eggs — survives, with more money than ever.
Operation Streamline began in 2005, and it imprisons men, women and children for immigration violations, sometimes up to 10 months or more, and it channels more than $1 billion a year in federal funds to private-run detention centers.
It would seem contradictory for a program that rounds up undocumented migrants to be funded alongside comprehensive immigration reform. Yet both President Obama’s plan and the plan put forward by the Gang of 8 senators call to increase Border Patrol enforcement programs.
Enlace, coordinator of the National Private Prison Detention Campaign, has compiled data on private prison industry money to pressure Congress for more enforcement business in any comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The Private Prison Lobby
First, a brief guide to the private prison lobby. Numbers are from their 2012 quarterly lobby disclosure reports filed with the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House. The Center for Responsive Politics has a useful site where much of this information is posted.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, lobbyist for CCA, received $220,000 for its services for CCA in 2012.
Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., received $280,000 to lobby for CCA in 2012. McBee Strategic Consulting received $320,000 in 2012 from CCA. CCA in-house lobby registered $970,000 in lobbying for 2012.
Navigators Global lobbies for GEO. GEO paid Navigators Global $120,000 for lobbying in 2012. Lionel (Leo) Aguirre was also paid $120,000 for lobbying for GEO.
Among the gang of eight senators, all but Lindsay Graham and John McCain have received significant money from the private prison corporations. The transparency watchdog, Open Secrets, compiled the figures by adding contributions from members, employees, PACs or immediate family members of the organization.
* Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): Chair of the Rules Committee, Member of Judiciary and Chair of Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Enforcement. In 2012, Schumer received at least $64,000 from lobbyists Akin Gump et al, and $2,500 from Mehlman Vogel. He also received $34,500 from FMR (Fidelity), which owns 5.09 percent of CCA and 8.67 percent of GEO.
* Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): Member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Foreign Relations, received $29,300 from the GEO Group. Wells Fargo (also heavily invested in private prisons) gave Rubio $16,150.
* Bob Menendez (D-N.J): Finance Committee, new chair of Foreign Relations, received more than $39,000 in documented money from private prison lobbyists, with $34,916 coming from Akin Gump, $6,300 from Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. and $1,000 from McBee Strategic Consulting.
* Michael Bennet (D-Colo.): Finance Committee, received at least $30,794 from
The prison lobby also targeted several key House members Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Budget committee and member of Appropriations, received $21,600 from Akin Gump; $74,700 from McBee Strategic Consulting.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who is on the House Budget and Judiciary committees, received money from: Akin, Gump et al ($19,600); and contributions from Mehlman Vogel associates totaling $2,500.
What these lobbyists want for their money is an immigration reform bill that tightens, rather than loosens the criminal net for undocumented workers and their families.
The inhumane and illogical step of pre-deportation detention was invented by the private prison industry. Last year, the Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement, including detention, than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined — a staggering $18 billion. The detention centers receive $166 per person, per day in government funds — an amount that would be a godsend to a homeless family or unemployed worker.
Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, director of Enlace, notes, “The private prison industry is swamping the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees to try to buy them to keep Operation Streamline so they can incarcerate more immigrants in private prisons despite immigration reform.” There is nothing surprising about that, he adds, “That’s their business.”
The national movement made up of local organizations against private detention centers has a simple demand — stop funding private immigrant detention centers. They have blocked construction of new prisons and pressured investment funds and individuals to divest from private prison stock. They have also turned their sights on the politicians that feed federal money into the system.
Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a member of the divestment campaign, explains that her group is meeting with Florida Congressional representatives to counteract the influence of the private prison lobby.
“In the broadest sense, what we’re trying to do is to show the financial impact on policies and the conversation in the context of immigration reform,” she says.
Are members of Congress being bought off? Rodriguez replies, “I think that when people are being heavily lobbied and when there’s financial interests involved and when our representatives are benefiting from those financial interests directly through lobbying, it compromises their ability to do what’s right for taxpayers and immigrant families.”
There is a lot at stake for the private prison companies. CCA and GEO reported combined revenues of $3 billion dollars in 2011, with nearly half — $1.3 billion — coming directly from federal government, according to 2011 annual reports. They will fight hard for continued incarceration under immigration reform — whether it makes sense policy-wise or not.
The human rights issues involved in locking up migrants for profit, separating families and detaining individuals in poor and humiliating conditions rarely even make it into the debate. Instead, politicians are tempted to curry support among the prison industry and conservatives, with more talk of “enforcement” as the trading chip for citizenship and less talk of human rights.
Meanwhile, citizen groups are hoping that greater transparency and public awareness of the role of private prison corporations will lead to a more lasting and rights-based comprehensive immigration reform, one where for-profit immigrant detention centers become a relic of a crueler past.
Follow Laura Carlsen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cipamericas
After Ancelma’s husband was deported to Mexico, she found herself unable to close a bank account with Wells Fargo that was accruing overdraft fees. Though it has marketed itself as a bank of choice for the Latino community—accepting matricula cards that give undocumented immigrants access to banking services and even establishing “Wells Fargo Amigos” outreach teams—the bank refused to accept her husband’s authorization to close the account because it was written in Spanish.
The family soon learned this wasn’t the only way in which Wells Fargo is less “immigrant-friendly” than it first appears: The financial institution also invests heavily in the private prison industry that lobbies for and profits from harsher immigration enforcement and detention.
Ancelma’s story is one of several detailed in a series of reports urging Wells Fargo to break ties with private prison operators. In September, National People’s Action and the National Prison Divestment Campaign exposed that the bank was heavily invested in two major such companies with nearly $100 million of holdings in Geo Group and nearly $3 million in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The groups launched a public pressure campaign, branding the bank “Jails Fargo” and holding demonstrations outside its branches. In late October, they declared victory when Wells Fargo’s most recent SEC filings revealed that it had divested more than a third of its holdings in GEO Group.
Prison divestment organizers are encouraged by this move, but say it doesn’t yet go far enough. During a national day of action yesterday, activists in nine cities staged demonstrations to call for full divestment from the private prison industry. “Wells Fargo still provides a $700 million line of credit without which CCA could not build new prisons,” explains Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, executive director of Enlace, a national alliance of low-wage worker centers that coordinates the National Prison Divestment Campaign. “And beyond this, we’re asking all institutions, public and private, to cut ties with this industry—much as people of conscience divested from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.”
The National Prison Divestment Campaign, launched in spring 2011, brings together labor and faith organizations with immigrant rights groups alarmed by the explosion of private detention centers. In 2005, private prison operators gained a major foothold in the field of immigrant detention with the start of Operation Streamline, a policy mandating criminal, as opposed to civil, prosecution of undocumented immigrants crossing the border. As the result of this shift, and the redefinition of acts like “illegal border crossing” as immigration felonies, Latinos now constitute the majority of those sentenced for federal crimes. Nearly half of immigrants convicted of such crimes are held in private facilities.
The private prison industry has been involved in lobbying heavily for both new immigrant detention centers and tougher enforcement policies that will help fill them. In 2010, In These Times reporter Beau Hodai uncovered CCA’s pivotal role in shaping SB 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. Thirty out of the 36 state legislators who co-sponsored the bill received campaign contributions from private prison companies. Though the Supreme Court struck down three out of the bill’s four provisions earlier this year, the “show me your papers” law that invites racial profiling by law enforcement remained intact, and has since taken effect in Arizona.
SB 1070 is far from the only instance where private prison companies have prevailed in securing such lucrative arrangements. During the past decade, the AP reported in August, the three major private prison companies have spent $45 million in lobbying and campaign contributions. This was money well-spent: Whereas ten years ago, private prison operators held two federal contracts worth about $760 million, the Federal Bureau of Prisons today pays these companies $5.1 billion through 13 different contracts.
The result is more than 23,000 immigrants detained for federal crimes, up from just over 3,000 a decade ago. Cervantes-Gautschi asserts that this drastic increase is clearly the result of profit-motivated policy shifts: “More than half of immigrants in the federal prison system are being held for things not even considered crimes six years ago,” he says.
Demonstrations held across the country yesterday targeted Wells Fargo, GEO headquarters, and the hedge fund Scopia, which according to Enlace holds over 9 million shares in GEO group. As New York demonstrators assembled outside Scopia’s offices, protesters carried life-sized black silhouettes labeled “missing” to symbolize the destruction of communities wrought by rising levels of detention.
“Each silhouette represents a missing member of our community,” explains Andalusia Soloff of the group Families for Freedom. “A person who, no matter the legal status, residency, or citizenship of the person has been removed and sent away, leaving their families and loved ones behind.”
Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.
Nation of Change / OP-ED
Whereas public departments of corrections on the state and federal levels are subject to disclosure statutes under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), private prison firms contracting with public agencies are not. This level of concealment is indefensible in light of the $7.9 billion in federal contracts that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO)—the two largest publicly-traded, private prison firms—have been awarded since 2007. If companies like CCA and GEO would like to continue to rely on taxpayer largess, then they should be required to adhere to the same disclosure laws as their public counterparts. Continue reading
The Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) – The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation’s largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns.
The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years thanks to government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually.
After a decade of expansion, the sprawling, private system runs detention centers everywhere from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark’s airport, and is largely controlled by just three companies. Continue reading
Written by: Jeff Amy – The Associated Press
11:09 PM, Jun. 13, 2012
A private prison operator that is giving up its business in Mississippi could face up to $104,000 in fines from federal workplace safety regulators.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said GEO Group exposed employees to assaults by inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Lost Gap.
Citations issued Tuesday by OSHA say GEO Group knowingly failed to provide adequate staffing, fix malfunctioning cell door locks or provide training to protect employees from inmate violence, including stabbings, bites and other injuries. Continue reading
Some of the Worst Abuse Ever Seen
Following on the announcement of the removal of all juvenile prisoners in Mississippi from private prisons, the Department of Justice has just released a report of its findings in investigating the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which is run by the GEO Group. Walnut Grove was the target of the lawsuit that resulted in the prohibition on sending juveniles to private prisons, and it turns out the state was more than justified in ordering such a removal. Juveniles incarcerated at the facility were subjected to ongoing sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse; the abuse was “among the worst that [the DOJ has] seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Continue reading