Demanding accountability from private companies detaining children

The Trump administration has torn an estimated 2,500 children from their asylum-seeking parents – and the damage to America’s reputation across the globe cannot be undone. Some are now terrified that children might disappear into the system and never see their families again.

While the children and their parents are suffering the trauma of not knowing when, or whether, they will be reunited, the billion dollar private prison industry is expected to reap massive profits as a result of the administration’s proposal to spend billions more in federal taxpayer dollars to warehouse children and their families. It’s worth noting that in 2017, the private prison industry spent almost $3.5 million on lobbyists to influence lawmakers, and in 2016 gave almost $1.6 million in contributions to outside spending groups, parties and candidates, some of whom approve requests for federal funds to implement immigration detention policies. The two biggest companies in the industry, GEO Group and CoreCivic, each also donated $250,000 to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE’s inaugural fund. 

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are left in the dark in terms of conditions inside the detention centers, and whether their money is being spent efficiently or effectively. 

Even nonprofits are poised to benefit from taxpayer dollars spent on child and family detention. One such group, Southwest Key Programs, gained notoriety after Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Senate adds members to pro-NATO group Senate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks MORE (D-Ore.) was denied entry to the group’s facility holding at least 1,500 children in Brownsville, Texas. Southwest Key is currently set to receive more than $458 million in contracts with the federal government this year, $173 million more than the year prior.

All the while, the administration refuses to disclose how many children they are actually holding, or even where they are being held. At least 100 children who have been taken from their parents are under the age of five, and the administration is struggling to match children to parents, in part because “records linking children to their parents have disappeared, and in some cases have been destroyed,” according to immigration enforcement officials who spoke to the New York Times.

Congress needs to act to address the policies that hide from the public who profits from child detention. Right now, it must demand accountability from the detention industry, as well as federal agencies that support it.

Congress can start by passing legislation to force private contractors to adhere to the same public disclosure laws as their federal counterparts. As it stands, private prison companies are exempt from the public’s premier tool for transparency and accountability, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), meaning violations of the law or abuse or mistreatment of detainees may remain hidden from public scrutiny. The lack of transparency means it is harder to guard against waste of taxpayer dollars.

In addition to forcing private contractors to adhere to FOIA, Congress should also demand a prompt investigation into all cases of family separation and treatment of asylum seekers. It should require the immigration enforcement agencies to adhere to existing reporting requirements (which they systemically ignore), publish new, quarterly reports on all family separations that have occurred at the border, and call for disclosure of information on all policies and guidelines relating to family separation and detention that are of interest to the public – including whether and what policies were put in place to ensure families could be reunited.

Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars to reward private prison companies, the government needs to protect children from the trauma of family separation and incarceration. Only by exercising its authority can Congress begin to remedy the secrecy and confusion rampant in the immigration detention system. Congress should reject the administration’s requests for funding to expand the private detention industry. It’s time to mandate real accountability mechanisms to end the trend of waste, secrecy, abuse and impunity.

Lisa Rosenberg is the executive director of Open the Government, an inclusive, nonpartisan coalition that works to strengthen our democracy and empower the public by advancing policies that create a more open, accountable and responsive government.