Arizona Immigration Law Ruling May Mean Boon For Private Prison Business

Arizona Immigration Decision Could Mean Boon For Private Prison Business

As the Supreme Court upheld a central provision of Arizona's controversial immigration law on Monday -– a requirement for law enforcement to check the legal status of suspected undocumented immigrants -- a powerful corporate lobby may stand to benefit: the private prison industry.

For-profit prison companies including Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group Inc. have capitalized on the immigration crackdown over the past decade, now controlling nearly half of the nation's vast immigrant detention system. Both companies have more than doubled revenues from the business of detaining immigrants since 2005, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Some immigration reform advocates and lawyers have argued that the upholding of the so-called "show me your papers" portion of Arizona's SB 1070 may bring more undocumented immigrants into the web of federal immigration enforcement, resulting in increased detentions and deportations.

"This is really the pointy end of the sword of SB 1070," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants' rights group. "It provides a real boon, a real growth opportunity for the private prison industry in the State of Arizona."

A Corrections Corporation of America spokesman said that "under longstanding policy, CCA does not and has not ever taken positions on or promoted any sentencing or detention legislation." A spokesman for the GEO Group did not respond to questions. In the past, CCA officials have stressed that the federal government, not local law enforcement, makes the ultimate decision on which undocumented immigrants should be detained.

Federal officials attempted to assert their authority in Arizona on Monday by rescinding previous agreements with state law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law at a local level. A senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has formally told agents in Arizona to prioritize only the most serious violations referred by local law enforcement. Those include potential undocumented immigrants with a criminal history and repeat border crossers.

"We will not allow a state to set our enforcement priorities," the senior administration official said.

Yet legal observers argue that the federal government's talk of prioritizing certain immigrants is at odds with the recent drive of President Barack Obama's administration to appear tough on immigration enforcement. The administration has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, approaching nearly 400,000 each of the last two years, and critics have said the increased Arizona enforcement could bring more opportunities for detention and deportation.

"The main issue here is that there continues to be a focus on deporting a lot of people," said Nancy Morawetz, a professor at the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University's School of Law. "There's a sort of pride in the number of people, and a pride in the number of people who happen to come in through an arrest, no matter what the arrest was."

The potential of future litigation remains likely. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who signed Arizona's immigration law in 2010, noted in a statement Monday: "Our critics are already preparing new litigation tactics in response to their loss at the Supreme Court, and undoubtedly will allege inequities in the implementation of the law."

Corrections Corporation of America has strong ties in Arizona, operating three detention centers housing nearly 2,000 undocumented immigrants in the state. Dennis DeConcini, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona, sits on CCA's board of directors. And several CCA lobbyists in Phoenix have worked for or consulted with Brewer.

Critics have questioned CCA's ties to Arizona's law. As written, the law in part mirrors draft model legislation on immigration enforcement developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of conservative state legislators and business representatives tied to the drafting of Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law.

Until 2010, a CCA senior director, Laurie Shanblum, sat on the ALEC executive task force for public safety and elections, along with state Sen. Russell Pearce (R), who introduced SB 1070. Parts of the Arizona law, including the section upheld by the Supreme Court, are word-for-word the same as the ALEC public safety task force's model legislation, according to a review of documents posted online by the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group.

Machak, the CCA spokesman, said that "any suggested connection between our company and Arizona's immigration law is baseless."

Though model language developed by ALEC is similar to the language in SB 1070, others have taken credit for helping to draft the law, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who worked as an immigration advisor to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft during the George W. Bush presidency. Kobach has advised other states and towns in developing immigration-related legislation, including Alabama.

GEO Group executives in the past have not disputed that enforcement efforts like Arizona's immigration law may have positive impacts on their business. In a 2010 GEO Group earnings call after Brewer signed the Arizona law, an analyst asked executives whether the new legislation might affect business.

Wayne Calabrese, then the company's chief operating officer, said the law "certainly indicates a level of frustration by the public," according to a transcript of the call. He added: "I can only believe that the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what's happening. ... That to me at least suggests there's going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do."

"Private prison companies are very explicit that they think the growth area for them is federal detention, and that means primarily immigration detention," said Emily Tucker, director of policy and advocacy for Detention Watch Network, an immigrants' rights group. "They're hoping this will mean more contracts for more detention beds."

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