Friday, February 6, 2015

How immigration detention became big business locking up border crossers and asylum seekers

This week, three news outlets – Fusion, the New York Times Magazine, and the Texas Observer – each separately published investigations and in-depth pieces looking inside the booming new for-profit immigration detention industry.

Taken together they paint a disturbing portrait of a taxpayer-funded, abuse-ridden private prison industry that was set up by federal officials who then proceeded to change immigration policy to fill the prisons with border-crossing immigrants and asylum-seeking women and children.

What’s more, as the
Fusion investigation showed, many federal officials from the very agencies that oversaw the transition of this system later went to work for the private prison companies holding the no-bid contracts, in some cases gaining an eight-fold increase to their salaries.

As the
NYTMag and the Texas Observer articles illustrated, this phenomenon coincided with a change under both the Bush and Obama administrations of locking up asylum seekers and immigrant families while their cases are pending. This has resulted in Central American women and children – who in many cases escaped rape, death threats and the killings of relatives by cartels and gangs – languishing for months behind bars in prison settings, where guards have been accused of sexually abusing the detainees.

In many other cases, with no legal right to a lawyer, asylum-seeking immigrant women and children have been warehoused in immigrant detention centers before “expedited” deportation, in some instances, to their deaths.

Here is what the investigations and articles reported:
Fusion: Shadow Prisons
  • “…without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.
  • One of those practices was Operation Streamline in 2005. While immigrants previously caught re-entering the country illegally were mostly put on a bus and sent back, under Operation Streamline, officials began to prosecute and lock them up for an average term of 18 months, creating a booming business for the private prison industry.
  • In the years leading up to this, private prison companies spent record-level funds lobbying the federal government, and two of the biggest companies supported elected officials whose legislation helped steer more business their way.
  • In the last five years, the two biggest private prison companies have made $2 billion from their federal contracts.
  • Three of the last four directors of the Bureau of Prisons – which is assigned the most immigration beds – now sit on the boards of the biggest prison companies. Other officials in charge at government agencies when Operation Streamline was implemented and prisons were being built are now working in the private prison industry.
  • One, Harley Lappin, went from making a salary of $180,000 as the director of the Bureau of Prisons to making more than $1.5 million as executive vice president and chief corrections officer at Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, one of the two biggest private prison companies with immigration detention contracts.
  • Congress lacks sufficient cost-analysis data to determine if the private prisons are saving taxpayers money. Bills to force more transparency have been killed after intense lobbying by the private prisons.
  • The beds are often negotiated without a formal bidding process.
  • A four-year investigation by the ACLU found patterns of abuse and neglect, overcrowding, and the placement of immigrants in solitary confinement for complaining about medical care or food. In one case, after numerous complaints to officials about his medicines, an epileptic man died after multiple seizures. An autopsy found insufficient medicine in his system.

Keep in mind, the immigrants that Fusion wrote about are not traditional federal prisoners or convicts locked up for violent crimes. They are people who have committed immigration offenses like illegally re-entering the country – offenses for which officials are now deciding to prosecute and seek prison terms in privately run prisons that earn huge profit margins, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

Also keep in mind that this has come about during an enormous drop-off in undocumented or unauthorized immigration since the economic collapse of 2008, after which unauthorized in-migration from Mexico declined. So officials’ attempts to justify this spending by suggesting that it’s needed to head off the proverbial wave of migration doesn’t match the reality on the ground. As for a deterrent, scholars have shown that while draconian measures and the militarization of the border are weighed by migrants in the risk-benefit decision to emigrate, the economy remains the biggest determining factor.

Past news reporting also has shown other methods by which officials have been filling new privately run prisons and immigration detention centers – with programs like Secure Communities, recently canceled by President Obama. It was supposed to target immigrants wanted for violent crimes but mostly rounded up immigrants on minor offenses like traffic violations.

Scholar Michael Welch depicted a longer history of the criminalization of the immigration process in his 2002 book, Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S. Jail Complex. He wrote that a series of stricter enforcement policies and expanded budgets for border patrol in the 1990s culminated in the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. IIRIRA gave the then-
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) new and “expansive” powers that “allow the agency to detain and deport any legal (and illegal) immigrant who has been charged with or convicted of a drug offense.” What were considered minor misdemeanors in the past – including shoplifting and low-level drug violations – were now detainable and deportable offenses, reviewed retroactively, even when they occurred years earlier in the late teens of immigrants who had gone on to become pastors, business owners and prominent members of their communities. Welch outlined how in the years to come, the INS expanded into a “corrections-industrial complex” creating the need for a larger number of detainees to fill a growing number of jail cells and prisons – often run by for-profit companies.

Now the trend of criminalizing immigration, and the rhetoric that surrounds it, conflate in the public’s mind immigrants with “law-breakers,” such as violent felons or thieves.

All of this, according to prominent Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, is the result of the United States trying to create a single North American economy through NAFTA – with integrated markets for goods, capital, services and materials – while maintaining “the fiction” of separate labor markets, sustained through unprecedented border enforcement.

Not only has this failed, Massey has argued through his research, but it backfired. Instead of Mexican migrants (mostly men) continuing a historical flow of in- and out-migration for temporary work, the militarization of the border caused immigrants to stay once they arrived. Rather than repeatedly risk the skyrocketing expense and violence of the cartels taking over the increasingly dangerous border crossing business, immigrants planted roots in the United States and sent for their families.

Massey argues that the United States would have been better served – and more in line with its NAFTA trade goals – not by spending billions on the border and other “repressive immigration policies,” but rather by helping Mexico improve infrastructure and markets for capital, credit and insurance, eliminating incentives for migration.

But migrant workers from Mexico have not been the only ones ensnared in this climate of immigration detention and incarceration.

So have people seeking asylum, fleeing violence in their homelands. That includes children.

The two other publications – the New York Times Magazine and the Texas Observer – show beyond-depressing circumstances for Central American children and their mothers fleeing gangs that have overrun their countries and in some areas have more control than government authorities.

The NYTMag article, “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps,” depicted how in response to the growing numbers of Central American children arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico,  the Obama administration decided to forgo the parole-pending-hearing practice for asylum seekers and returned to the Bush administration policy of detaining immigrant families arriving as refugees.

This, in spite of a 1997 court settlement that said release should be the practice when it comes to children. At least one judge recently determined that should be the case even if they’re with their mothers. The article also highlights a study showing that almost all families with some sort of monitoring return for their court dates.

Yet the Obama administration has pushed forward with expedited deportation for these families while more prisons and immigrant detention centers are under construction. In one case, the article notes, as pro bono lawyers were scrambling to help, hurriedly organized by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), 79 people were deported to El Salvador from a facility in New Mexico. Word got back that after the group arrived, 10 of the children were killed by gangs.

Both articles describe the desperation of the Central American women inside these facilities – the horrifying conditions they fled, the current grim, prison-like setting they’re now in, freezing temperatures, sicknesses, the dearth of interpreters, the food the children won’t eat, and their helplessness without an attorney. Under the law, they are not automatically entitled to one, so most of these mothers and children are unrepresented, as pro bono lawyers struggle to get access to them and keep up.

As the NYTMag and other articles have pointed out, most of these mothers and children who have had lawyers go on to win their asylum claims – speaking volumes to the legitimacy of the fears of these families.

Even with a lawyer, some waited 90 days for a bond hearing. Given backlogs, those with high bond or no bond may wait more than a year in detention for a full “merits hearing” on an asylum claim.

Meanwhile, the bulldozers are still at work.

This spring a new immigrant detention facility is slated to open in Dilley, Texas, to house women and children. The company holding the contract is none other than CCA, the same company dogged by scandals surrounding the now-shuttered Hutto facility, and investigations at its other facilities of abuse by guards, unchecked fighting, terrible conditions and contract fraud. No bidding was done for CCA to get the Dilley contract; the Obama administration awarded it to CCA as an extension of its existing contract on a different facility 1,000 miles away in Eloy, Arizona, which will keep $400,000 of operating expenses despite the distance.

The NYTMag noted that the estimated costs to house someone yearly at Dilley are $108,000. Spread across 2,400 expected detainees at Dilley, the expense will be more than $250 million a year at this one facility alone.

As President Obama and Congress wrestle over his nearly $4-trillion budget proposal, instead of fighting over his execution actions on immigration, it could be more productive to address these serious questions raised by these articles regarding the for-profit immigration detention industry.

This merely would be a story about potential budgetary waste and insider-deals – if not also for the scale of human suffering involved.

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