As many as 60,000 immigrants could sue GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the United States, for allegedly making immigrants engage in forced work that violates anti-slavery laws.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014, asserts that detained immigrants are forced to work for $1-2 a day. GEO and CoreCivic (the other largest private prison company) combined donated nearly $500,000 in support of Trump – half went to a super PAC that helped elect him and the other half went to support Trump’s inauguration. Now, two months into his administration, those donations appear to be paying big dividends.
Despite inhumane conditions in private prisons, President Trump’s administration has announced several orders that benefit specific private prison companies in both the immigration and criminal justice systems, creating the appearance of pay-to-play corruption at the highest level. Congress should immediately begin an investigation but, more importantly, we need to fundamentally change how we finance our elections. Even the appearance of corruption degrades our democracy.
Between 2000 to 2012, GEO and CoreCivic spent more than $45 million on state campaign contributions and lobbying at the federal level. In 2014, CoreCivic and GEO spent well over $2 million lobbying Congress, and individuals from these companies gave more than $500,000 to congressional candidates.
GEO’s $225,000 payment to a Super PAC that helped elect Trump included a $100,000 payment that may have violated campaign finance laws; the donation to a pro-Trump super PAC was made while private prison companies were negotiating with the Department of Justice on whether to continue using private prisons on a federal level. Just this week, the Department of Justice announced that it will now be using private prisons to incarcerate people, reversing the Obama administration’s policy.
Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has also dramatically expanded the need for immigration detention centers as DHS sets the stage for mass deportations. Together, CoreCivic and GEO run about 72 percent of the privately-owned ICE beds. These private prisons currently hold 33,000 immigrants, refugees, and human-trafficking victims per day. In February, a letter was leaked in which White House immigration experts suggested to Homeland Security that they increase the quota of people held in immigration detention centers from 33,000 to 80,000 people per day.
President Trump also recently issued executive orders that advocate for mass deportations that would help fill these quotas. Trump’s orders expanded the definition of “criminal” and mandated that DHS “promptly remove” “criminal aliens.” As a result, the DHS encourages Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to detain any undocumented person they encounter and believe to be criminal.
The guidelines issued by DHS “make detention pending the court case the default for thousands of immigrants.” After ICE detains a person, those people, including women and children, are held in immigration detention centers while they wait for deportation proceedings. Part of Trump’s executive order called for expanding and building more immigration detention centers
Every day a person is incarcerated or held in an immigration detention center, the private prison companies profit.
To be clear, it’s not just the Trump administration or Republicans who take money from, and are influenced by, private prisons (or other) corporations and unions. Democrats also take money from private prison companies and prison guard unions, as well as other companies and unions. In fact, a recent report issued by Free Speech For People documents how private prison contributions to the Democratic governor of California, Jerry Brown, appear to influence his policies.
The way in which the government is beholden to big money interests is part of a broader trend. Those who contribute the most money to campaigns have the most access to politicians. This highlights one of the biggest roadblocks in American democracy — money in politics. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and similar cases have entrenched the power of money in our political system.
The Supreme Court ruled that donating money to politicians should have protections under the Constitution because money is “speech.” The result is that wealthy people, corporations, and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in politics. To participate in our current political process, you must have enough money to compete with wealthy interests. This has created a predictable problem: studies show that middle and low income voters have virtually no effect on the policies Congress enacts.
Instead, Congress listens to those with the most money to spend on their elections. This has left us with a nation that is now run by, and largely for, the wealthy few. Overturning Citizens United won’t fix our immigration policy, criminal justice system, or the detention system overnight. But when we’re up against the wealth and political might of the private prison industry, we need the voices of the people to rise above the wallets of the wealthy.
Jasmine Gomez is an attorney and the 2016-18 Democracy Honors Fellow at Free Speech For People.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.