The ugly business of immigrant detention

June 22, 2015

Lupita Romero reports on the efforts of activists to call attention to the ongoing horror of detentions and deportations--and the corporations that are benefiting.

IN THE last couple of years, the hopes and expectations of millions of immigrant families have been dramatically lowered--from sweeping laws that would offer a "pathway to citizenship" to much more limited executive actions like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 and last year's Deferred Action of Parents of Arrivals (DAPA)--to now seeing even these reduced reforms held up by legal challenges.

Meanwhile the detention and deportation of arriving and vulnerable immigrants is ongoing, spurred by enforcement policies such as the Priority Enforcement Program and the "detention bed mandate" that are rarely discussed by the media but are well known to the private prison companies who have lobbied for them to boost their profits at the expense of working class Black and Brown communities.

Private prison companies have even been able to become classified as "real estate" companies in order to avoid paying federal income taxes.

In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in the United States that control over 90 percent of the private prison industry, received Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) status, which usually given to companies like hotel chains whose business revenue come from the real estate.

Protesting for-profit prisons and detention centers
Protesting for-profit prisons and detention centers (Paul Jeffrey)

That was the focus of a New York City protest on June 8 outside of the Real Estate Investors Trust Conference being held at the midtown Hilton, organized by members of the national Prison Divestment Campaign -- including CUNY Prison Divestment, Responsible Endowments Coalition, ENLACE, Families for Freedom and Brandworkers International.

Outrageously, REIT status enables these companies to classify their prisons as housing programs, in the process saving over $100 million in state taxes in 2013 alone.

Conditions in these “housing programs” are so deplorable—including recurring incidents of discrimination, physical and sexual abuse, torture and general negligence of detainee medical needs—that they have led to multiple wrongful deaths and suicides and most recently to hunger strikes at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas (run by GEO Group) and the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona (run by CCA). These hunger strikes have largely been ignored by company officials, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and elected officials.


"THERE ARE 36 US based investors companies who each own over 1 million shares and collectively own two thirds of the CCA and GEO," according to the Private Prison Divestment Campaign, a "million shares club" that includes financial giants such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Vanguard Group and Goldman Sachs.

The financial sector makes up a third of the U.S. economy, which makes these investors and owners some of the most powerful lobbying forces in the country.

This may help to explain why Congress' Taxation Committee approved the prison industry's request for REIT status this time around, after denying it back in 2001 due to suspicious mismanagement on behalf of CCA in the filing process.

"This is part of how they spread their influence," said Ian Trupin of the Prison Divestment Campaign at the rally, "and create the political will among the rich and powerful in this country to keep locking people up and keep passing racist immigration laws that break up our communities that lock our children and people up."

Protesters are specifically targeting New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, who sits on the Joint Committee on Taxation and voted to grant REIT status despite being vocally opposed to other discriminatory policing practices like stop-and-frisk that similarly feed into the mass incarceration of the communities he claims to represent.

Another way that the government is helping private prisons make money off of immigrant misery is Congress's detention bed mandate, which sets a quota guaranteeing a minimum of 34,000 detainees.

This quota, notes the Detention Watch Network, along with a "parallel set of local quotas codified into contracts with private companies...obligate ICE to pay for a minimum number of immigration detention beds at certain facilities. Because these guaranteed minimums require payment to private contractors whether beds are filled or not, ICE faces considerable pressure to meet the population guarantees."

The quota creates a perverse incentive for ICE to find immigrants to put in those beds, regardless of whether even the current draconian laws call for their detention.

"88% of the families detained across the government's three family detention facilities have been found to have legitimate refugee claims by establishing a credible fear of persecution if returned to their home countries," according to a recent letter from 14 senators to the Department of Homeland Security.

"We are deeply concerned by the growing evidence that detention of young children, particularly those who have experienced significant trauma, is detrimental to their development and physical and mental health," continues the letter. "That evidence has been reinforced by specific examples of individual children in these detention facilities struggling to eat or sleep, and exhibiting signs of serious depression."


ONE OF the key engines of the detention and deportation machine has been the collaboration between ICE and local police departments. The Obama administration's Secure Communities (S-Comm) program set off alarm bells among advocates across the country, who compared the idea of police stopping people suspected of immigration violations to the similarly racially biased "stop and frisk" policy.

In the face of this widespread opposition, the administration has shifted from Secure Communities to a new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which Obama declared would focus on "felons, not families. Criminals, not children."

But many immigrant organizations have argued that despite this simplistic rhetoric--do felons not have families?--PEP has "ominous similarities" to Secure Communities, leading some to dub the new program "PEP-Comm.

In response to these trends, many organizations that have been fighting deportations have come to the conclusion that the immigration law enforcement system is becoming completely merged with the criminal justice system that is the focus of many activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, and that this unjust behemoth must become a focus of immigrant rights organizing.

The Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, a NYC based grassroots non-profit dedicated to fighting detention of the LGBTQ community, recently launched an #endthequota campaign to spread awareness about the bed mandate program and bring attention to the Elizabeth Detention Center in Newark, New Jersey (run by CCA), which is currently detaining a minimum of 285 immigrants on any given day.

Because immigration violations are legally part of civil and not criminal law, immigrants in detention are not protected by constitutional provisions such as the right to a speedy trial and legal counsel.

Every single day thousands of immigrants across the country are shuffled and crowded back and forth between federal prisons and 200 detention facilities that exist in the country without access to lawyers or communication with their families, and with high bonds that many are unable to pay. As a result, many immigrants spend years in detention or get deported despite having legal grounds for release or status adjustment.

While most Democrats and some Republicans describe themselves as champions of immigrant rights, in reality the last two decades have been marked by an all around unwavering support of enforcement-only immigration policies from both parties.

In our current political discourse of immigration policy, media pundits, intellectuals and politicians uphold the notion that there are only two kinds of immigrants. There is the good immigrant, the content hardworking valedictorian student or worker who has merited citizenship, and there is the bad immigrant, a parasitic criminal foreigner that must be detained and removed in order to maintain a "nation of laws."


THIS LAW and order rhetoric and the drive to criminalize immigrants, non-citizens and the foreigner or racial "other" was largely created in the post 9/11 era--solidified and strengthened through the Homeland Security state apparatus, which includes an ever expanding and interconnected Department of Homeland Security, military, police, and surveillance state apparatus.

As author Alfonso Gonzalez explained in Reform Without Justice, this is the agenda of the "Homeland Security State" as pushed by right-wing nativists and "a fluid constellation of forces composed of elected officials, state bureaucrats, think-tanks, intellectuals, (that) under the influence of sections of global capital, have set the boundaries of the immigration debate around narrow questions of criminality and anti-terrorism."

Working through political action committees and corporate non-profits like the American Legislative Exchange Council, many of these forces—including CCA and GEO--fund politicians from both parties and help to draft immigration policy that either focus only on enforcement or call for "merit-based" legalization--limited by income, education, seniority and respectability--that guarantee plenty of opportunities to profit off of the detention of some of the millions who are excluded.

It is this context that explains how Barack Obama, who came to office largely due to his promise of immigration reform which secured him the deciding Latino vote in both elections, has instead become infamous to immigrants as the Deporter-in-Chief.

At its height in 2006, the immigrant rights movement showed some of its potential power by mobilizing immigrant workers into massive marches and shutting down major cities to protest anti-immigrant legislation.

Since then, the movement has been able to fight some of the most draconian enforcement policies like S-Comm, but has been largely unable to fight the record numbers of deportations and detentions by false promises of legalization from the Democratic Party.

While there have been gains made like DACA and DAPA--mainly through direct and militant actions-- the relief these policies bring are at best conditional and at worst feed into a narrative of merit-based relief that excludes those most vulnerable.

The movement remains split over what its larger goals should be because the loyalty of many sectors to the Democrats and the acceptance of their false binary between "good" and "bad" immigrants. Meanwhile, the immigrant detention system has grown by 75% in the last decade, immigrants have become the fastest growing part of the prison population and the government is using the collaboration between ICE and criminal justice system to expand the use of family detention to respond to the growing numbers of refugees fleeing violence in Latin America.

Grassroots organizations that have for years tried to mobilize communities and utilize minimal resources to fight thousands of individual deportation cases are today calling out to the larger movement to challenge the lucrative business behind this mass suffering.

Exposing the banks, private prison companies and politicians that make up the Prison Industrial Complex is the first step in demanding divestment from these companies, and an end to the policies that allow them to profit off of the tearing apart of immigrant families and communities.

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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