As the immigration reform debate heats up, an important argument has been surprisingly missing. By granting legal status to immigrants and ordering future flows, the government could save billions of dollars. A shift to focus border security on real crime, both local and cross-border, would increase public safety and render a huge dividend to cash-strapped public coffers.
This kind of common-sense immigration reform has the multibillion-dollar private prison industry shaking in its boots. Its lobbyists are actively targeting members of congressional budget and appropriations committees to not only maintain, but increase incarceration of migrants -- with or without comprehensive immigration reform.
While a broad public consensus has formed around the need to legally integrate migrants into the communities where they live and work, private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, thrive off laws that criminalize migrants, including mandatory detention and the definition of immigration violations as felonies. They are using their money and clout to assure that even if immigration reform goes through, the practice of locking people up for immigration infractions will continue.
Their No. 1 goal: to assure that Operation Streamline -- their goose of the golden eggs -- survives, with more money than ever.
Operation Streamline began in 2005, and it imprisons men, women and children for immigration violations, sometimes up to 10 months or more, and it channels more than $1 billion a year in federal funds to private-run detention centers.
It would seem contradictory for a program that rounds up undocumented migrants to be funded alongside comprehensive immigration reform. Yet both President Obama's plan and the plan put forward by the Gang of 8 senators call to increase Border Patrol enforcement programs.
Enlace, coordinator of the National Private Prison Detention Campaign, has compiled data on private prison industry money to pressure Congress for more enforcement business in any comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The Private Prison Lobby
First, a brief guide to the private prison lobby. Numbers are from their 2012 quarterly lobby disclosure reports filed with the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House. The Center for Responsive Politics has a useful site where much of this information is posted.
Among the gang of eight senators, all but Lindsay Graham and John McCain have received significant money from the private prison corporations. The transparency watchdog, Open Secrets, compiled the figures by adding contributions from members, employees, PACs or immediate family members of the organization.
* Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): Chair of the Rules Committee, Member of Judiciary and Chair of Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Enforcement. In 2012, Schumer received at least $64,000 from lobbyists Akin Gump et al, and $2,500 from Mehlman Vogel. He also received $34,500 from FMR (Fidelity), which owns 5.09 percent of CCA and 8.67 percent of GEO.
* Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): Member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Foreign Relations, received $29,300 from the GEO Group. Wells Fargo (also heavily invested in private prisons) gave Rubio $16,150.
* Bob Menendez (D-N.J): Finance Committee, new chair of Foreign Relations, received more than $39,000 in documented money from private prison lobbyists, with $34,916 coming from Akin Gump, $6,300 from Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. and $1,000 from McBee Strategic Consulting.
* Michael Bennet (D-Colo.): Finance Committee, received at least $30,794 from
The prison lobby also targeted several key House members Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Budget committee and member of Appropriations, received $21,600 from Akin Gump; $74,700 from McBee Strategic Consulting.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who is on the House Budget and Judiciary committees, received money from: Akin, Gump et al ($19,600); and contributions from Mehlman Vogel associates totaling $2,500.
What these lobbyists want for their money is an immigration reform bill that tightens, rather than loosens the criminal net for undocumented workers and their families.
The inhumane and illogical step of pre-deportation detention was invented by the private prison industry. Last year, the Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement, including detention, than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined -- a staggering $18 billion. The detention centers receive $166 per person, per day in government funds -- an amount that would be a godsend to a homeless family or unemployed worker.
Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, director of Enlace, notes, "The private prison industry is swamping the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees to try to buy them to keep Operation Streamline so they can incarcerate more immigrants in private prisons despite immigration reform." There is nothing surprising about that, he adds, "That's their business."
The national movement made up of local organizations against private detention centers has a simple demand -- stop funding private immigrant detention centers. They have blocked construction of new prisons and pressured investment funds and individuals to divest from private prison stock. They have also turned their sights on the politicians that feed federal money into the system.
Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a member of the divestment campaign, explains that her group is meeting with Florida Congressional representatives to counteract the influence of the private prison lobby.
"In the broadest sense, what we're trying to do is to show the financial impact on policies and the conversation in the context of immigration reform," she says.
Are members of Congress being bought off? Rodriguez replies, "I think that when people are being heavily lobbied and when there's financial interests involved and when our representatives are benefiting from those financial interests directly through lobbying, it compromises their ability to do what's right for taxpayers and immigrant families."
There is a lot at stake for the private prison companies. CCA and GEO reported combined revenues of $3 billion dollars in 2011, with nearly half -- $1.3 billion -- coming directly from federal government, according to 2011 annual reports. They will fight hard for continued incarceration under immigration reform -- whether it makes sense policy-wise or not.
The human rights issues involved in locking up migrants for profit, separating families and detaining individuals in poor and humiliating conditions rarely even make it into the debate. Instead, politicians are tempted to curry support among the prison industry and conservatives, with more talk of "enforcement" as the trading chip for citizenship and less talk of human rights.
Meanwhile, citizen groups are hoping that greater transparency and public awareness of the role of private prison corporations will lead to a more lasting and rights-based comprehensive immigration reform, one where for-profit immigrant detention centers become a relic of a crueler past.
Mr. Steve Owen of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) writes requesting a "correction" to my article because he claims that: a) I wrote that CCA is lobbying on immigration reform and, b) that CCA never lobbies on immigration reform. No correction is warranted.
First, readers will note that I wrote "They are using their money and clout to assure that even if immigration reform goes through, the practice of locking people up for immigration infractions will continue," and "to maintain incarceration of migrants with or without immigration reform." I wrote that they are lobbying to continue to receive government contracts to detain people for immigration infractions regardless of what type of reform goes through, not that they are lobbying for one particular proposal over another. I made it quite clear that they work across the aisle to do this.
Secondly, exactly what Mr. Owen would define as lobbying on immigration reform is unclear. The filings on lobbying activities state the purpose of the CCA lobbying as in this Akin Gump statement: "Issues pertaining to the construction and management of private prisons and detention facilities; the Commerce, Justice, State appropriations bill; the Homeland Security appropriations bill; Freedom of Information Act legislation; monitor immigration reform; Safe Prisons Communications Act". Under the lobbying disclosure Act, McBee reported that it received $80,000 from CCA for: "Provisions and funding related to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in FY2013 Budget Request, the FY2013 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill, and the FY2013 Homeland Securities Appropriations Bill", along with Bureau of Prisons budget. Other filings are similar. Unfortunately, "border security", enforcement and immigrant detention have been intricately bound up with immigration reform in the legislation, thus making it difficult to define where one begins and the other ends.
Thirdly, the amounts refer only to the firms' lobbying activities for CCA, with the above intentions and the amounts these firms, who have as CCA a major client, have given to politicians. The questions as to whether the firms have other clients or the Congressional members work on other issues is merely a feeble attempt at reductio ad absurdum -- I never said or implied that. He also says nothing of the money CCA puts into lobbying directly, nor of the fact that many of those contributions are directly traceable to the individuals or family members of the lobbyists that handle the CCA account.
No one doubts that companies pay lobbyists to advance their interests. The interest of the private prison industry, like any industry, is to generate demand for its services and obtain governmental contracts. In this case "demand" means a steady stream of immigrant prisoners. CCA says so much in a part of the article that was included in the longer published version: In its 2010 Annual Report, CCA warns that "any changes [in the laws] with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them." When the company lobbies or pays lobbyists to maintain the flow of contracts and immigrant prisoners in its business, it is lobbying to maintain a structure of imprisoning immigrants on criminal charges -- this is the "service" it provides.
An informed citizenry must know who is working to influence their representatives and how. That was the legitimate concern that led to passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act in the first place. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors. For this reason, we journalists and analysts provide straight information and a framework for understanding the implications. These amounts of money going through lobbying firms to members of Congress, whatever the particular route, present a clear source of influence that constituents should be aware of if we want public policy to serve the people, and not special interests.