One big "Gang of Hate"

The private-prison industry has enjoyed outsized influence over the Gang of Eight senators who are behind proposed immigration legislation, reports Lupita Romero.

Three senators from the Gang of Eight: (left to right) John McCain, Charles Schumer and Marco RubioThree senators from the Gang of Eight: (left to right) John McCain, Charles Schumer and Marco Rubio

SINCE HIS first presidential campaign, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have expressed support for the immigrant community and promised comprehensive immigration reform. In reality, however, Obama has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, resulting in the expansion of the private-prison industry that profits from detentions and deportations.

While Obama, Democrats and their supporters back the comprehensive reform bill presented by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, human rights and labor rights violations, inhumane detentions, deportations and separation of families will continue. Meanwhile, the private-prison industry keeps on winning.

The first Obama administration failed to pass promised legislation for comprehensive immigration reform, as well as the DREAM Act of 2010, which would have given undocumented youth and students who were brought here as kids a path to citizenship. Instead, the Obama administration has focused on rampant criminalization and deportation.

While the number of deportations under Obama has already surpassed 1.5 million--and is expected to reach 2 million by 2014--anti-immigrant legislation has been proposed with greater frequency at both the state and federal levels during the last decade. Obama has faced growing criticism from Latino and other immigrant communities as aggressive enforcement has resulted in the mass deportation of "low-priority" undocumented immigrants--mothers, fathers and children--separating millions of families and terrorizing millions more. Currently, Latinos make up 97 percent of deportees.

Obama and his apologists excuse his administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform as the result of a hostile environment in Washington, where Republicans in Congress have created political gridlock. During his second presidential campaign, Obama talked about post-partisanship, collaboration and cooperation from both parties on this issue.

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THIS LONG-hoped-for bipartisanship seemed to have finally materialized in May when an 844-page immigration reform bill was presented to Congress by the U.S. senators working on immigration ,reform known as the Gang of Eight--Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The bill, however, includes a long and conditional path to legalization. Applicants would only have a Registered Provisional Immigrant status during a 13-year (at least) wait for legalization. Guest worker and E-verify programs would be expanded without strengthening labor laws that would protect existing workers and incoming guest workers. Increased militarization of the border, enforcement and deportations would also continue.

When the already dense bill got to the Judiciary Committee, there were more than 300 proposed amendments. Anticipating the amendment markup, America's Voice, a nonprofit that support immigrants rights, quickly dubbed five Republican senators--Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas, Ted Cruz of Texas and David Vitter of Louisiana--a "Gang of Hate" that is opposed to the bill.

Some of the amendments they proposed include banning any undocumented immigrant who ever lived in the U.S. from applying for citizenship, requiring enforcement and border security programs to be fully implemented and successful before immigrants can apply for legalization, and the building of a DNA database of immigrants directly linked with the FBI.

America's Voice accused these senators of trying to gut a "progressive" immigration reform bill. They have even suggested that Marco Rubio, a Gang of Eight member, should "revoke his membership" because of his backing of some of these amendments.

Since then, their online blogs have focused on creating a narrative that glorifies the Gang of Eight's alleged bipartisanship and vilifies the opposition. In this lesser-of-two-evils narrative, the Gang of Eight is a product of an effective Democratic initiative on comprehensive immigration reform and a weakened Republican Party trying to redeem itself, while the Gang of Hate is the product of an ultraconservative Republican faction that has yet to turn the page on the issue.

Many prominent immigrant rights organizations, networks, unions, advocates and the mainstream media are increasingly following along in this narrative. The Campaign for an Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration Overhaul (CAMBIO) recently released a press statement declaring:

CAMBIO is troubled by recent comments attributed to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) regarding the future of the immigration reform bill. Until now, Senator Rubio has played an essential leadership role in moving this legislation forward and for that we commend him. But the Gang of Eight bill represents a bipartisan approach. Undermining it could collapse the entire effort and be yet another failed attempt at comprehensive immigration reform.

This campaign brings together prominent immigrant rights' groups, unions and advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and many others.

Left out of this narrative, however, is any real criticism of the fact that the Gang of Eight has put forth a bill without the immigrant and Latino communities they claim to represent and support at the table--despite the nationwide growth and mobilization of grassroots organizations opposed to anti-immigrant policies.

CAMBIO and other boosters of the Gang of Eight have not pointed out that politicians from both parties fundamentally agree, despite minor differences, on a bill that includes a strenuous and conditional path to legalization, which will create yet another class of undocumented people. Meanwhile, employers will continue to exploit workers, as will the racist criminalization and deportation of immigrants on a mass scale.

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THIS IS because private-prison corporations that run the detention facilities have spent years and massive amounts of money lobbying these politicians to ensure a steady stream of bodies to fill their cages. There is no lesser of two evils, but rather one gang of politicians and their corporate backers who have politically and financially benefited from an expanding prison-industrial complex.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO), the two largest private-prison companies in the United States, have profited enormously from the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, in 2010 alone, GEO raked in $1.17 billion in annual revenues. CCA took in $1.69 billion, and the private-prison industry as a whole got more than $5 billion.

In the last decade, these corporations have influenced legislation by lobbying and through financial contributions to politicians of both parties--by means of their political action committees (PACs)--in order to have direct input in the drafting of these laws. "Since 2000, the three largest private-prison companies--CCA, GEO and Cornell Companies--have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates," according to the Justice Policy Institute report, while giving to "state-level politicians during the last five election cycles was much higher: $6,092,331."

GEO and CCA are also members of the American Legislative Exchange Council--or ALEC--a right-wing public-private nonprofit organization made up of legislators, businesses and foundations. Together, these companies have become the principal forces behind anti-immigrant policies. Through these relationships with politicians from both parties, they have had direct influence over the writing and passage of anti-immigrant bills such as Arizona's SB 1070 and many similar proposals in states across the country.

To date, some of the senators in the Gang of Eight have been among the top recipients of contributions from such corporations and PACs. The Migrant Power Alliance, the Dream Action Coalition and other organizations rallied in March outside of Schumer's New York City office to denounce his ties to such anti-immigrant lobbying groups.

Schumer, a leading Democrat among the Gang of Eight, has been a public advocate for immigration reform and also a supporter of the federal DREAM Act. Yet he has accepted more than $100,000 in contributions from CCA. Rubio has received close to $27,300 from GEO, while McCain has received more than $32,146 from CCA.

The relationship between these corporations and congressional representatives proposing anti-immigrant bills are much more intimate than simply the financial support they receive--many federal legislators are direct shareholders in these companies.

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IN THE face of all of this, the immigrant community has demonstrated strength, resilience and an immense ability to self-organize. Not only has the immigrant rights movement successfully defeated many of these policies, but there has also been a flowering of local groups and national networks made up of grassroots organizations. Undocumented youth and students--known as the Dreamers--successfully pressured Obama to sign deferred action, obtaining work authorization.

Undocumented workers have successfully organized and won the ability to unionize at a time when the labor movement has been under continuous attack. They have stopped the detention and deportation of thousands, keeping their families and loved ones together. They have done this by challenging the racism and discrimination they face and by criticizing and holding politicians accountable by means of grassroots organizing, boycotts, strikes, direct action and civil disobedience.

Nonetheless, they have been absent from the table and left out of the debate around comprehensive immigration reform. The proposed bill, as it stands today, is legislation not only written in the interest of corporations, but it has also completely excluded the very community it affects. Their stories and experiences have fallen on the deaf ears of the politicians who most claim to support them.

Immigrant rights groups, nonprofit organizations, unions and other advocates for genuine reform must continue to challenge these politicians, question their ties to these corporations and criticize this bill for what it really is. We must continue to build the immigrant rights movement that has transcended nationalities.

While we have brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the political debate, the struggle must continue until we are sitting at the table--and able to shape the changes that we've fought so hard to obtain.