The expansion of for-profit prisons to incarcerate non-citizens held under the government's civil, not criminal, authority is both a symptom and a cause of an increasingly criminalized and dehumanized immigration process. Immigrants who have broken no criminal laws are being held in prison-like conditions that have themselves come under scrutiny by nonprofit groups and federal agencies over the past two years.
The Detention Watch Network cites that in 2009 the Obama administration "acknowledged that the immigration detention system was sprawling and too punitive in nature for immigrants in civil immigration proceeding." However, at the same time, the federal administration is expanding the detention system and awarding contracts to private billion-dollar companies that are not bound to the same supervision and oversight as would be a public agency.
The GEO Group, the second largest contractor with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and one of the largest private prison corporations, made over $1.17 billion in its contracts with the federal government last year. GEO is expected to earn $42 million per year by detaining immigrants in Adelanto. The for-profit nature of the facility provides an incentive to fill beds instead of using "alternatives to detention," where individuals with no criminal records and long ties to the community can be supervised outside a prison setting. The alternatives to detention cost less and are more effective and humane than the prison-like detention system.
Another concern is whether the number of non-criminal detainees and immigration enforcement in general will increase in the Inland Empire as a result of having more space to house them. We have already seen a record 5,136 deportations last year under the administration's controversial jail-based immigration enforcement programs, the majority of whom committed either only a misdemeanor or no crime at all.
GEO Group has been found to be heavily involved in lobbying the federal government and different states throughout the country in order to increase immigration enforcement to benefit its bottom line. The prison contractors hire lobbyists and finance candidates who promise to be "tough on crime" and "tough on immigrants," preying on the fears of those destabilized by the economic downturn and eager for security.
It is a closed system that perpetuates itself for profit. According to an analysis by Detention Watch Network, the five corporations with the biggest contracts with ICE have spent as much as $20 million lobbying legislators over the past 10 years. Moreover, Julie Myers, the assistant secretary of homeland security and director of ICE under President George W. Bush, now serves as a lobbyist for the GEO Group.
In Arizona, the private prison industry was a main proponent of the contentious anti-immigrant law Senate Bill 1070. The prison industry needs prisoners and immigration legislation like S.B. 1070 promises filled beds. Regardless of whether the law could be considered a solution to the immigration quandary, it had a decidedly destabilizing social impact. This climate is already sowing tensions in our area and is something we should be loath to embrace.
It goes without saying that an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform is doomed to failure, even it wins elections for tough-on-crime candidates and lines the pockets of big business. This problem can only be solved through a comprehensive approach that includes providing hard-working immigrants with an earned path to legal residency, special consideration to families of mixed immigration status, a fair and accurate worker verification system and a more timely process for those wishing to legally immigrate to the United States.
In the meantime, more transparency and oversight of for-profit detention facilities is needed in order to ensure that detainees have access to medical care, legal counsel and regular family visits. Finally, the link between private prison corporations and federal and state immigration enforcement policy should be further investigated and dismantled. Immigrants are human beings with families, not commodities that increase value for shareholders.
This was co-authored by ICUC organizer Benjamin Wood.
Suzanne Foster and Benjamin Wood are members of the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, consisting of more than 20 groups from all sectors of the community.