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Appropriations bills preserve profits for private prison companies

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Before going on an extended recess, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees passed funding bills for the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, both bills included language that would extend the widely-criticized immigrant detention quota.

This quota requires the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to maintain 34,000 immigrant detention beds on any given day – the only such quota imposed on any law enforcement agency in the U.S. The quota was instituted in 2009, and has helped fuel the explosion of immigrant detention in the U.S. In the last year alone, almost half a million people were held in detention.

{mosads}The report accompanying the House version of the Appropriations bill criticized the Obama Administration’s budget request for immigrant detention, claiming that the department “cannot demonstrate why reducing the number of available detention beds is appropriate and would have no harmful effects on immigration enforcement.” In fact, the committee itself has never provided a justification for why the quota was created in the first place, and why it’s been maintained at the same time that public opinion is swinging hard against mass incarceration and mass detention.

So why has the detention quota been passed year after year?

Perhaps it’s because private prison companies profit handsomely from immigrant detention. Private prison corporations are now contracted for 62 percent of ICE de­tention beds. Since 2003, the two biggest of these corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have collectively spent over $32 million lobbying the federal government —including lobbying the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees federal con­tracts for immigration detention centers. Members of the Appropriations Committee also receive campaign contributions from these same companies. Rep. John Carter, chairman of the Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, received at least $21,000 in direct contributions from CCA and GEO.

This lobbying has paid off, as CCA and GEO Group have seen their contracts with ICE skyrocket. In 2005, CCA received $95 million in ICE contracts. In 2014, that number shot up to $221 million. GEO’s ICE contracts increased by $230 million over the same period.

It could also be because officials within ICE have a strong incentive to be very friendly to these corporations — the possibility of a much more lucrative job when they leave public service. For example, Julia Myers Wood served as the head of ICE from 2006-2008 and then went on to be the Director of GEO Group.

As former ICE officials, private companies, and some members of Congress benefit from immigrant detention, who pays the price? We all do.

Communities pay when members are ripped away from them and jailed. Families suffer tremendously as parents, children, siblings and others are separated. Immigrants in the U.S. are also business owners, workers, and consumers so the economy takes a hit. When communities are hollowed out by stripping away support systems, everyone suffers.

American tax-payers suffer as well. ICE detention costs us over $2 billion every year.

Our legal system suffers when immigrants are denied due process. In the U.S., under habeas corpus, people charged with criminal offenses receive custody hearings shortly after being apprehended and they may be released on bail. But that often is not the case with immigrant detention. No other U.S. legal system permits jailing people without review by an independent judiciary.

Detained immigrants themselves suffer. According to the Center for American Progress, the quota resulted in decisions to detain rather than release otherwise eligible immigrants, including vulnerable populations such as asylum seekers, children and families. A recent report by Human Rights First details how detention of asylum seekers has increased despite international norms and laws that recognize that asylum seekers should generally not be detained.

Family detention has also exploded over the last two years after being nearly abandoned in 2009 because of a wide-spread recognition of the damage it causes. This explosion is despite repeated court decisions that current family detention policies violate U.S. law.

Fortunately, many members of Congress recognize the need to eliminate the detention quota. Sixty members of Congress signed a letter to the Appropriations Committee earlier this year calling for the policy to end. Unfortunately, there is still stiff resistance to change within the committee itself.

Hopefully, increased attention and pressure from constituents will change their minds. Grassroots groups will be mobilizing supporters during an upcoming Week of Action to End the Quota to urge their representatives to end the quota and move us closer to a more just and humane system.

Kathryn Johnson is the Policy Impact Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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