The United States government currently detains tens of thousands of immigrants each day, under the control of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Over 70 percent of these people are held in privately owned, for-profit facilities, including those run by two behemoth corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. In 2017, these two companies, which contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration, received $985 million from their contracts with ICE, more than a third of the agency’s annual expenditure on custody.
The evidence demonstrates that outsourcing the detention of immigrants, many of whom are seeking asylum, to profit-maximizers, is a national disgrace.
For-profit detention centers — and service providers (of food, drug testing, telephones, and transportation) within them — cut corners in myriad ways. Especially when (according to the DHS inspector general) ICE has not adequately monitored or enforced its own Performance-Based National Detention Standards to insure safety, security, order, medical care, justice, communication assistance for individuals who are not proficient in English, compliance with sexual assault, abuse and disability accommodation laws, and suicide prevention.
Recent reports by the IG contradict claims by acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, that he hears only about minor detention condition problems and that “any issue that affects the safety of detainees is addressed immediately.” The IG has documented significant food safety issues, inadequate medical care, overly restricted segregation, nooses in cells, and unreported security incidents. The IG indicated as well that “instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties,” ICE officials (some without clear authority to act) routinely issue “waivers to facilities with deficient conditions” — and do not share information about detention contracts “with key officials” in the government.
Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch and former United States Citizenship and Immigration Services chief counsel sums up the current state of play: “In case there is any confusion or misunderstanding about the abhorrent conditions in detention, the DHS Inspector General has been clear that conditions have not only been poor, they have been deteriorating into horrifying.” Recently, first-hand accounts by journalists and members of Congress have expanded the catalogue of horrors.
Of course, responsibility for the treatment of immigrants at the southern border rests with the federal government, led by a president who stokes fear of an “invasion” by brown-skinned rapists and murderers.
That said, it should be clear by now that the for-profit corporations running detention centers (and, for that matter, prisons) do not make the health, safety, and well-being of these men, women, and children their highest priority.
Although for-profits have tried to stay beneath the radar, immigrants’ rights groups have mobilized against private-sector detention centers and what they see as a disconnect between capitalism and morality. Philadelphia, New York City and New York State have divested pension funds from Geo Group and CoreCivic. Democratic parties in California and Florida have rejected campaign donations from Geo Group. Because of Geo Group’s association with family separations, Lancaster County, Pa., rejected a proposal from the corporation to take over prison re-entry services. And, following allegations of pervasive abuse, the commissioners of Williamson County, Texas, voted last year to end its contract with Hutto Detention Center, a CoreCivic women’s facility.
In 2019, the U.S. Congress reversed a decision by the Trump administration to end the Family Case Management Program for asylum seekers and their children, which by the federal government’s own reporting, used alternatives to detention (ATDs) for immigrants considered to be low risks, including electronic monitoring, an approach which by the federal government’s own reporting is less restrictive, far less costly, and effective in getting 99 percent of “detainees” to appear for their hearings. President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE signed the bill allocating $30.5 million for ATD family case management programs and $40 million for ATD case management staff.
Immigration rights groups, however, are fighting an uphill battle. The outsourcing of services previously managed by government to for-profit corporations continues to grow and grow, in prisons, schools, and the military. In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to increase the building of detention centers; the DHS goal is facilities capable of holding 80,000 people a day. And the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, introduced into the House of Representatives by Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and 30 co-sponsors, that effectively eliminates private detention centers, is not likely to become the law of the land anytime soon.
The battle, in my judgment, should command the attention of every American who values justice and dignity more than a balance sheet.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.