Detention Mandate is "News to Me" says Graham

Arnie Alpert on October 10, 2015
Neither Senator Lindsey Graham nor his friend, Senator John McCain, are aware of a budget provision that requires 34,000 "detention beds" for incarcerated immigrants. Senator McCain also professed no knowledge of for-profit immigrant detention centers in his home state, Arizona.

Seven months after Senator Lindsey Graham told me he was unaware of a federal budget provision that mandates daily detention space for 34,000 immigrant prisoners, he said the quota is “news to me” at a Town Hall forum in Canterbury on October 10.

Appearing with his buddy, Senator John McCain, Graham addressed a few dozen people at Canterbury Town Hall.  In his opening statement, Graham called for escalating US military involvement in the Middle East and Ukraine, then called for fixing the Social Security system by raising the retirement age.  Then, he asked for questions and called on me.  Since he hadn’t said anything about immigration. I asked if he’d address the topic before I raised my question.

The South Carolina Senator launched into an explanation of his views on immigration, which include doubling the Border Patrol, tripling the number of drones at the border, mandating the use of the federal E-Verify system, and allowing immigrants who are not felons to get a green card (and an eventual path to citizenship) after 10 years. 

 When he asked Senator McCain for further comments, the Arizona Senator deferred to me.    (minute 3:17 in the audio)

“You might remember your very first town hall meeting of this cycle at the Snowshoe Club,” I told Senator Graham.  “I was sitting in the front row and I asked a question.  You said, ‘I thought I knew everything about immigration and I didn’t know that.’” 

“So here’s my question again,” I went on.  “Inside the federal budget, in the Homeland Security budget, is actually a quota system for immigrant detention.  It’s actually a requirement that ICE have capacity to detain 34,000 immigrants on a daily basis.  It’s the only law enforcement agency that actually has a quota to lock people up, regardless of public safety, regardless of anything else.  And right now 60% or more of those people who are being locked up are being held in for-profit prisons, which are in companies that actually lobby and make campaign contributions in order to feed their business model which depends on having the government lock people up to fill their beds.  So my question is, can’t we do something so that we don’t have private prison companies determining our immigration and sentencing policy?”

Senator Graham deferred to McCain, who expressed his support for Operation Stonegarden, a DHS program that promote collaboration between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.  He said he is familiar with federal detention facilities in his home state.    

“I’m not aware of private prisons holding immigrants in Arizona, he said.

In fact, there are three privately run detention centers in Arizona, all operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the industry leader in privatized incarceration.  Its facilities are the Eloy Detention Center, the Florence Correctional Center, and the Central Arizona Detention Center.   

After the fifth of a string of suicides took place there this summer, the Arizona Republic referred to CCA’s Eloy Detention Center as “the deadliest immigration detention center in the nation.”

“I have never heard of a quota system,” Senator McCain told me.  (minute 7:47 in the audio.)

“I’ll be glad to provide information for you,” I responded.  “It’s actually in the DHS Appropriations bill.”

The mandate is spelled out on page 5 of the 2015 DHS Appropriations bill, which provides “that funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2015.”  Similar provisions have been in every DHS appropriations bill since 2010.   The mandate has forced growth in detention and increased the market for privatized incarceration.

“In the last decade the detention system has grown by 75 percent, an expansion that depends heavily on ICE’s increasing use of private contractors to operate and provide services at immigration jails across the country,” reported the Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights in a recent report, Banking on Detention.  “Sixty-two percent of immigration detention beds are operated by private prison companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group (GEO).”

“Many government-owned facilities also rely on privately contracted detention-related services such as food, security, and transportation. This interdependent relationship with private industry has produced a set of government-sanctioned detention quotas that ensure profits for the companies involved while incentivizing the incarceration of immigrants.  Accordingly, a large portion of the over $2 billion in the FY 2016 budget for detention operations will ultimately go to for-profit contractors,” according to the DWN/CCR report.

While there is some discussion about whether the 34,000 figure is an actual quota, there is substantial evidence that ICE is under pressure to fill detention “beds.”  Congressman John Culbertson has even proposed changing the word “maintain” to “fill” in order to make it clear that Congress wants the “beds” occupied.    

Moreover, ICE contracts with many of the private detention centers require the taxpayers to pay whether the “beds” are full or empty, and which specify lower costs if the number of prisoners exceeds the minimum.  This “guaranteed minimum” puts additional pressure on ICE to detain immigrants and put them into for-profit facilities. 

“These guarantees act as taxpayer-funded insurance for private companies against any changes in immigration enforcement policy or prioritization, because the companies are paid regardless of how many individuals ICE detains,” as Banking on Detention puts is.

Responding to my reference to the appropriations language, Senator McCain told me “I’ll be glad to look at it.  If it’s in the bill, then it’s a Congressional mandate.”

“Yes, it’s a Congressional mandate.  You are a member of Congress,” I pointed out.  

Finally Senator Graham joined the conversion.  “It’s news to me,” he said of the detention mandate, and moved on to another topic.  

I took the card of one of his aides as soon as the forum ended.  I’ve already followed up with a copy of the DHS Appropriation bill and information about for-profit immigrant detention centers in Arizona.  Senator Graham is in New Hampshire for a few more days this week.  

Arnie Alpert is Co-Director of AFSC’s New Hampshire Program.  He is a resident of Canterbury.

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Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, which he has led since 1981.  In that time he has been involved in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia.