The Salinas Californian, Aug. 2, 2012
MIAMI — The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation’s largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns.
The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years thanks to government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually.
After a decade of expansion, the sprawling, private system runs detention centers everywhere from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark’s airport, largely controlled by three companies.
The growth is far from over, despite the sheer drop in illegal immigration in recent years.
In 2011, nearly half the beds in the nation’s civil detention system were in private facilities, up from 10 percent a decade ago.
The companies also have raked in cash from subsidiaries that provide health care and transportation. And they are holding more immigrants convicted of federal crimes in their privately-run prisons.
This seismic shift toward a privatized system happened quietly. While Congress’ unsuccessful efforts to overhaul immigration laws drew headlines and sparked demonstrations, lawmakers’ negotiations to boost detention dollars received far less attention.
The industry’s giants — Corrections Corp. of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. — have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the past decade, the AP found.
CCA and GEO, who manage most private detention centers, insist they aren’t trying to influence immigration policy to make more money, and their lobbying and campaign donations have been legal.
Advocates for immigrants are skeptical of claims that the lobbying is not meant to influence policy.
“That’s a lot of money to listen quietly,” said Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, who has helped lead a campaign to encourage large banks and mutual funds to divest from the prison companies.
The detention centers are in cities and remote areas alike, in low-slung buildings surrounded by chain-link fences and razor wire. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detain men, women and children suspected of violating civil immigration laws at these facilities. Most of those held at the 250 sites nationwide are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.
The average nightly cost to taxpayers to detain an illegal immigrant, including health care and guards’ salaries, is about $166, ICE said.
Pedro Guzman is among those who have passed through the private detention centers. He was brought to the U.S. by his Guatemalan mother at age 8. He was working and living here legally under temporary protected status but was detained after missing an appearance for an asylum application his mother had filed for him. Officials ordered him deported.
Although he was married to a U.S. citizen, ICE considered him a flight risk and locked him up in 2009: first at a private detention facility run by CCA in Gainesville, Ga., and then at CCA’s Stewart Detention Center, south of Atlanta. Guzman spent 19 months in Stewart until he was granted legal permanent residency.
“It’s a millionaire’s business, and they are living off profits from each one of the people who go through there every single night,” said Guzman, now a cable installer in Durham, N.C. “It’s our money that we earn as taxpayers every day that goes to finance this.”
The federal government stepped up detentions of illegal immigrants in the 1990s, as the number of people crossing the border soared. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring more illegal immigrants be locked up. But it wasn’t until 2005 — as the corrections companies’ lobbying reached its zenith — that ICE got a major boost. Between 2005 and 2007, the agency’s budget jumped from $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion.
Dora Schriro, who in 2009 reviewed the nation’s detention system at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said nearly every aspect had been outsourced.
Private companies argue they can save Americans money by running the centers more cheaply. They are also making more money locking up non-citizens who commit federal crimes.
A decade ago, more than 3,300 criminal immigrants were sent to private prisons under two 10-year contracts the Federal Bureau of Prisons signed with CCA worth $760 million. Now, the agency is paying the private companies $5.1 billion to hold more than 23,000 criminal immigrants through 13 contracts of varying lengths.
GEO, which cites the immigration agency as its largest client, saw its net income jump from $16.9 million to $78.6 million since 2000.
An AP review of Federal Election Commission data found the prison companies and their employees gave to key congressional leaders who control how much money goes to run the nation’s detention centers and who influence how many contracts go to the private sector.
The top beneficiaries:
— The Republican Party received around $450,000. Democrats received less than half that.
— Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He received $71,000, mostly during his failed presidential bid, well after he dropped support for a bill that would have given illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
— House Speaker John Boehner received $63,000.
—Kentucky U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers received $59,000. Rogers chaired the first subcommittee on Homeland Security and heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He often criticizes ICE for not filling more detention beds.
— Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He got $58,500. The lawmaker from Tennessee, where CCA is headquartered, led the Senate at the height of the US immigrant detention build up 2003-07.
The prison firms’ influence at the state level mirrors that in Washington, though the money is harder to track since many states, such as Arizona and Illinois, where companies have won lucrative deals, don’t require them to disclose what they pay lobbyists.
The AP reviewed campaign contribution data from the three companies’ political action committees and their employees over the past decade, compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. From 2003 to the first half of 2012, state candidates and political parties in the 50 states received more than $5.32 million.
In the 10 states where the companies’ committees and employees contributed the most, the AP found they also spent at least $8 million more lobbying local officials in phe last five years alone.
ICE has begun providing more oversight as part of the Obama’s pledge to overhaul the system for jailing immigration offenders. It scrapped plans for CCA to build a 1,500-bed detention center in a Miami suburb.
But it remains committed to adding more private beds. Plans are on track to build or expand private immigration jails in Newark, N.J., the suburbs of Chicago and along a stretch of California’s Mojave Desert.