The danger of building detention economies
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Build it, and they will come. And stay. And never want to leave. We’re talking about all the companies, organizations, and people required for the massive expansion in family detention that the Trump administration is now calling for. As people who have studied detention economies for years, this call for tremendous resources to build new detention infrastructure sets off multiple alarms.

As we breathe a sigh of relief that the administration has promised to end the blatant brutality of literally ripping families apart at the border, let’s be clear. Trump’s Executive Order is cruel and dangerous. By continuing the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy at the same time and insisting on prosecuting anyone at the border as a criminal, Trump is basically returning to the Obama-era policy of jailing parents and kids together for long periods of time. Research on family detention during the Obama administration showed clearly that the practice is damaging to all involved.

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Now it’s even scarier under an administration that is trying to throw out standards for the safe and humane operation of detention, and cut oversight of contracted facilities. And the rapid rollout of more family detention that Trump is calling for will require the hiring of many people not properly trained.

But here’s the biggest alarm for us. As we have seen in our research on the internal economies of detention facilities, once you’re in the detention business, you don’t want to get out.

It’s not just the big corporations that get into the detention game. It’s easy and important to call them out with their obvious profit margins. But building massive detention operations pull in many other players.

It’s also county governments and organizations who contract with ICE to provide “bedspace” for detention. Some of these, like the Walmart leased by Southwest Keys in Brownsville, Texas, will use existing, empty space. Others will build new facilities. And you can bet that whether a facility is being converted or a new one is being built, they will want promises from ICE that their investments will pay off, in the form of more “guaranteed minimums” contracts. These “lockup” quotas basically provide motivation at the local level to make sure that all available detention beds will be filled.

It’s also all the companies needed to pull off detention – food providers, laundry, transportation, medical services, guard services and commissaries. And all the distributors of products used by those companies.  

It’s also all the people employed in the running of detention facilities, in the service providers, in product distribution, who will want and need to keep their jobs and salaries. So many more people will get sucked in, including people who will go to work feeling that they “do good” in their daily jobs.

Beware: With Trump’s massive expansion, so many more entities and people will become financially dependent on detaining families. Financial dependence greases the wheels of acceptance. As one Essex County, New Jersey freeholder board member said in discussions about a new ICE contract in 2011, “This is a very unpleasant way of getting revenue…But it’s going to be helpful.” More people will be willing—needing—to believe that detaining families is okay. They can say “we’re helping to keep families together”. They can feel justified in the sentiment that they are part of the “solution” to ending family separation, and also avoid giving up this new revenue stream.

There are other solutions. There is no law that says immigrants at the border must be prosecuted as criminals. It was this Trump administration switch—from treating border crossing as a civil issue—that has brought on the current sense of crisis. And just think what else could be done with the billions of dollars being spent on detention, such as initiatives to reduce violence and otherwise stabilize Central America, that actually address why people risk their lives trying to get to the United States.

We are all breathing a collective sigh of relief that the immediate, in-your-face horror of kids literally ripped from their parents could end soon. But there is danger in that sigh of relief. Don’t let the terror of “zero tolerance” fall off your radar. Don’t let detaining kids and families become okay. It wasn’t okay during the Obama years, and it never will be. Continue to be outraged. Continue to call representatives. Take a stand with your wallet. Urge more players to follow the example of airline companies and refuse to take part in the jailing of kids and families –the Trump administration can’t do it without them. Because once that family detention infrastructure is in place, it will fight for its own survival.

Nancy Hiemstra is Assistant Professor of Migration Studies in the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University. Conlon is a lecturer in critical human geography at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.