The recent news that the US government deported nearly 400,000 immigrants in the past year has been met with an outcry byimmigrants and advocates around the country who witness the destruction tofamilies and communities caused by these deportations. But one group has beenquietly cheering on the push to detain and deport more immigrants than everbefore. The private corrections industry, led by Corrections Corporation ofAmerica and the Geo Group, has ramped up its lobbying effort at both thenational and local levels to ensure that its detention facilities are used todetain more and more immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency withinthe Department of Homeland Security responsible for running the sprawlingsystem of immigration detention facilities, spends nearly $2 billion annually on detention operations. While only 6% of stateprisoners and 16% of federal prisoners are housed in private prisons, almost half of all immigration detainees are housed in privately-run detention centers, mostlyby CCA and Geo.
With each detainee costing between $122 and $166 per nightto detain, it is easy to see why these for-profit companies fight for tougherimmigration laws and the increased use of immigration detention. In 2009, forexample, CCA spent $1.98 million lobbying the federal government on issuesrelated to private prisons. And in a recent SEC filing, Geo candidly noted that “Our growth depends on our ability tosecure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mentalhealth facilities … Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus forlegislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also couldmaterially adversely impact us.”
In addition to lobbying against immigration reform efforts,the private prison industry has been actively involved in crafting laws that would dramatically increase the number of detained immigrants.CCA, for example, is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council(ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and privatecorporations to craft policy. The language of SB 1070, the Arizona immigration law that aims to identify and arrest allundocumented immigrants in Arizona, was largely written in a December 2009 ALECmeeting after its main sponsor, state Senator Russell Pearce, presented hisideas to an audience that included CCA employees. These employees helped turn theseideas into model legislation at the ALEC meeting, and the legislation was laterco-sponsored by 36 Senators, two-thirds of whom were either ALEC members orpresent at the meeting where SB 1070 was created. Thirty of these co-sponsorsreceived donations from private prison contractors in the months after SB 1070was introduced.
The decision to detain someone in an immigration detentionfacility, like the decision to sentence a criminal to a prison term, shouldnever have any connection to the profit goals of corporations like CCA and Geo.The fact that their business models depend on increased detention, which inturn depends on blocking meaningful immigration reform and instituting harsherimmigration laws, makes them much more than a neutral provider of services tothe government. The private prison lobby has consistently shown its ability andwillingness to use its considerable resources to advocate for policies thatserve its bottom line at the expense of the civil and human rights ofimmigrants.