Why I Handed Chris Christie a Whistle

Arnie Alpert on May 18, 2015
Last week I asked Chris Christie how we can keep for-profit prison companies from running our immigration policy. He said "we need to blow the whistle" if policy is being driven by the dictates of private profit. So I went to see him again this week. After his speech in Portsmouth, I gave him a copy of our paper on the immigrant detention quota. And I handed him a whistle.

Chris Christie was a few minutes into his stump speech when I slipped into the American Legion Hall in Suncook, New Hampshire, an old mill town by the Merrimack River.  The New Jersey Governor was in the middle of a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, with 50 or 60 people seated at card tables.  Despite being late I was able to grab a ringside seat.

When the speech was over, Gov. Christie asked for questions, wheeling around to point at voters seated in different parts of the room.

My turn came midway through.

“I read an article in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago,” I began.  “It said that the reason we have so many immigrants locked up in prisons all across the county Is because we have for-profit companies that are making money off that process and the way they do that is by lobbying and giving campaign contributions to people who are running for office.

“So my question is,” I continued, “what can we do to make sure that this type of example of what some people call crony capitalism is not what is driving our government policy?  This is obviously not the way to grow the economy, to turn over billions of our taxpayer dollars to companies that are well connected.”

“So what can we do as an alternative to keep these crony capitalists from running our immigration policy, our foreign policy, and the rest of the things we need do as a government?”

Gov. Christie said he agreed with my premise “that we should not allow private industry to determine our governmental policy.”  Then he rationalized private prisons as a cost-effective alternative to construction of public facilities.   

“But responsible policy makers have to be responsible for the policies that are being put forward,” he said, “so you need to hold us to account.  If you believe that certain states or the federal government are using this private system purely to make profit, then we need to blow the whistle on that.”

We went back and forth a bit more, the governor conceding that the government should not be detaining people just to fill cells in private prisons.  “I don’t know whether federal policy is being driven that way or not, but it’s certainly something we need to look at, to make sure the tail is not wagging the dog.”

At the point I tried to explain the immigrant detention quota, a federal budget policy that mandates 34,000 prison beds for immigrant detainees, mostly in private prisons run by companies such as CCA and GEO.    Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the only federal law enforcement agency with a quota, I pointed out.   “The fact is that companies like CCA and GEO are spending a lot of money, and making campaign contributions, it looks like something to blow the whistle on.  Take a look at that,” I said.

“I will take a look at that,” Governor Christie responded.  “It’s one of the areas where there is a robust debate in this country over about whether we should be detaining those people who are here illegally to get them deported… I’d love to see more information.”

So today I went to Portsmouth for Governor Christie’s speech on foreign and military policy.  Afterward I handed him a new, unreleased AFSC report on the immigrant detention quota.  Then I handed him a whistle.

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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.