BY ESTHER YU-HSI LEE
APR 16, 2015
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An Orange County Sheriff's deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees.
REDIT: AP PHOTO / JAE C. HONG
Private prison corporations spent $11 million over six years to lobby Congress to keep immigrants in detention centers, a new report released Wednesday found. The Grassroots Leadership report, Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota, found that lobbying efforts of the two largest private prison corporations have made them the main beneficiaries of aggressive immigration detention policies. For-profit family detention centers have come under scrutiny in recent times as migrant women renewed a hunger strike this week in Texas, demanding that they be released on bond with their children.
Since 2007, Congress has approved federal funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to detain at least 33,400 people (increased to 34,000 in 2014) per day in detention facilities. Provisions in this budget have long been referred to as an “immigrant detention quota” and “bed mandate” on the rationale that they require a certain number of immigrants be detained at any given time. Last year, about 33,000 immigrants were held on a daily basis. “Defenders of the bed mandate say it remains a useful tool to compel ICE to devote the maximum amount of resources to catching and deporting illegal migrants and foreign-born legal residents who commit crimes, including dangerous gang members, rapists and other violent felons,” the Washington Post reported in 2013. A record number of immigrants have been kept in detention, but the majority are not violent offenders.
When ICE released more than 2,000 detainees in 2013 to save money, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas wrote a letter to then ICE director John Morton stating that ICE was “in clear violation of statute” for not maintaining all 34,000 bed spaces with immigrant detainees. Morton indicated that a continuing resolution funded ICE to “maintain an average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals.”
But DHS Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson insisted during a House Appropriations Committee hearing last year that the quota wasn’t mandatory and that ICE should only “maintain the capability” for 34,000 beds, some of which “might be empty at any given time.”
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) contended at the time that the DHS should fill all the beds and enforcement officials do not have the authority to use discretion because they must “enforce the law as it is written.”
In a possible sign that Johnson’s statement may signal a change in the interpretation of the statute, the daily detainee population for the first five months of 2015 dropped to around 26,000.
The Grassroots Leadership report found that private prison corporations operate 62 percent of ICE immigrant detention beds, while nine of the ten largest ICE immigrant detention facilities are operated by for-profit prison corporations. The report also found that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the major private prison companies, “spent at least 75 percent of its lobbying expenditures in quarters where it has lobbied directly on the [Department of Homeland Security] Appropriations Subcommittee.” Meanwhile, GEO Group, another major private prison company, “has not directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee” but the report authors said that “the company recently began lobbying on immigration and immigrant detention issues, spending $460,000 between 2011 and 2014 in quarters when they lobbied on these issues.”
Last year CCA made $195,022,000, while GEO made $143,840,000 in profits.
During a teleconference Wednesday, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) explained that the only way that Congress could get rid of a bed mandate would be through the annual DHS appropriations budget. “The Republican majority has resisted allowing those amendments to come up,” Smith said. He said that introducing a stand-alone bill getting rid of the mandate hasn’t worked in the past. Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) previously introduced such a bill, calling the mandate “a costly and inhumane directive,” but the bill hasn’t moved through Congress. Smith said that eliminating the bed mandate would be “the first step to eliminating privatization. It’s a huge thing that drives their profits.”
Watchdog and activist groups across the country have long criticized the growing political influence of the private prison industry. The National Institute on Money and Politics found that GEO Group contributed $5,709,456 to candidates over the past 12 years. Contribution money has gone to both Republican, Democrats, and third party candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, companies like GEO Group, Corrections Corp. of America, and Management and Training Corp. all spent “significantly more lobbying in state capitals than on Capitol Hill… In 2014 alone, they spent nearly $2 million lobbying Congress, and individuals from these companies gave well over $500,000 to congressional candidates as well.” Republican candidates received more money overall, though GEO Group gave the highest individual contribution to Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA. Overall, GEO Group contributed nearly $3 million to the Florida Republican Party.
Though private prison companies have not taken an official stance on broad deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants, such as the president’s executive action, GEO Group suggested in its annual financial report that changes to current immigration law could adversely impact its bottom line. “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level…could materially adversely impact us,” the financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated.
But even if private prisons are making more money every year, immigrant detainees aren’t seeing those profits used to maintain the detention facilities. When a surge of Central American immigrants crossed the border last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that immigrants slept in overcrowded cells and on dirty floors. Young children wore prison jumpsuits, had to use toilets exposed to public view, and slept with the lights on at the Artesia Family Detention Center in Texas last year, the New York Times reported. Artesia closed amid criticism of the facility’s condition.
An influx of 68,445 Latin American adults with children crossed the southern border last year. In response, the Obama administration adopted an “aggressive deterrence strategy” to lock up women and their children in detention under a “no release” policy as a way to deter future migrants from making the trek.
Marichuy Leal Gamino, a formerly detained transgender immigrant, said in a teleconference that LGBT and transgender populations are particularly unsafe in these facilities. Gamino claimed that she was sexually assaulted by her cell mate last year. When she reported her abuse at Eloy Detention Center (a CCA-owned facility), staff allegedly told her to sign a statement claiming that she had consented. “I wasn’t safe,” she said. Immigrants are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse because they’re in the custody of an agency that determines whether they can stay in or are deported from the United States, a Center of American Progress report pointed out.
It costs about $159 per day to house one detainee. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) found that the average detention time nationally was 31 days, but the report found that “at the end of December 2012 there were 4,793 who had already spent at least six months in ICE custody and still had not been released. For these detainees the average detention time was already over a year.” The report also found that about a dozen individuals have spent anywhere between six and eight years in ICE custody, with one extreme case of an individual who has been detained for 17.3 years.”
The TRAC report found that about a dozen individuals have spent anywhere between six and eight years in ICE custody, with one extreme case of an individual who has been detained for 17.3 years. Sylvester Owino recently left immigration detention after nine years and stated that he is constantly overwhelmed by life outside the center. Marco Galdino was similarly kept in immigration detention for seven years and has trouble adjusting to his life outside a shared cell.
“We simply detain too many people,” Smith said Wednesday. “The bed mandate drives a lot of that. … privatizing prisons is a huge mistake and the other is the bed mandate.The government guarantees that there will be a certain number of beds mandated. … more than anything, we want to get rid of private prisons and private facilities.”