Private Prison Companies Grow Fat Off Immigrant Detention

A former Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan turned powerful U.S. Senator helped set in motion the sweeping system of immigrant detention we see today.

From 2000 to 2006, the average number of undocumented immigrants detained in the United States on any given day hovered around 20,000. And while that number had slowly started to creep up as lawmakers passed a series of post-911 security and terrorism prevention measures, it wasn't until 2009 that we saw a de-facto immigrant detention quota when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) inserted this language into Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention budget: "funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds." (Byrd, for the record, did spend much of the latter part of his political career apologizing for his ties to the Klan.)

This year ICE is set to open what will ultimately become the country's largest immigrant detention center in the small South Texas town of Dilley. The new 2,400-bed facility, which is specifically designed to hold undocumented women and their children, will be operated by Corrections Corporation of America, one of two private prison giants that have seen profits rise as increased immigration enforcement boosted the number of immigrants put in detention.

In a new report, Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group critical of the private prison industry, details how CCA and fellow for-profit prison company GEO Group found a lucrative market created by ICE's so-called "bed mandate."

"The immigration detention quota is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates under a detention quota mandated by Congress," the Grassroots report states. The group argues that the quota, coupled with ICE's over-reliance on for-profit prison companies and the financial incentive that has been created to keep beds filled, "has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy."

Sixty-two percent of all ICE beds are now run by private prison contractors, meaning for-profit prison companies operate nine of the ten largest immigrant detention centers in the country -- eight of those ten are run by CCA or GEO Group. As their share of the immigrant-detention market has grown in recent years so have the companies' profits (Grassroots points to reports indicating the companies have spent millions lobbying the government about immigration and detention policy). CCA's profits went from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014, while the GEO Group's profits made a staggering 244 percent jump during that time period from $41.8 million to $143.8 million.

Grassroots cites the companies own investors reports and financial statements. A 2014 investors presentation from CCA illustrates the incentive to push for every single ICE bed to be filled: "filling vacant beds would add ≈ $1.00 to [Earnings Per Share] & [Adjusted Funds From Operations] per share," the company wrote. In a recent company filing, GEO wrote that efforts to reform the immigration system, which could put thousands of undocumented immigrants on the path to legalization, may harm the company's bottom line: "Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us."

Grassroots points out that both companies have expanded to build centers for detaining asylum-seeking immigrant families in Texas. In 2014, GEO opened the Karnes County Residential Center southeast of San Antonio, where 600 women and children, most of whom have fled violence in Central America, are being held (GEO plans to expand capacity to 1,200 detainees). This week a group of 10 mothers launched their second hunger strike at the facility, demanding the release of women pursuing asylum claims.

Immigration lawyers and activists further criticize that CCA's soon-to-open 2,400-bed detention center in Dilley will primarily house women and children seeking asylum.

In its report, Grassroots calls for Congress to eliminate the immigrant detention quota, reduce ICE's reliance on for-profit prison contractors (particularly those with a record of abuse) and to work to replace large-scale detention with less-costly community supervision programs.

You can read Grassroots' full report here.

See also: Complaints Over Medical Care Presaged South Texas Prison Riot

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas