Immigrant Detention Quota is News to Candidates

Arnie Alpert on April 06, 2015

We've been asking all the candidates about a federal budget mandate that sets a quota for detention of immigrants, many of whom are held in for-profit prisons.  So far all we've gotten in response are variations on "I'll look into it." 

Outside Bedford campaign event

by Arnie Alpert and Lia Lindsey

“I’ll look into that question, nobody has ever asked me that before,” Hillary Clinton told some high school students in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

At the Snowshoe Club in Concord, New Hampshire, Senator Lindsay Graham said, “I thought I knew everything about immigration until now.”

“It would be a little disingenuous for me to tell you what I’m going to do to fix a problem I’m not aware of.  So, I couldn’t answer that,” was the response from Mike Huckabee in Altoona.

“I’d have to check,” said John Kasich in Concord.

The question that has them stumped concerns a federal budget provision that sets a daily quota for the number of immigrant detention beds.  The number is a shocking 34,000, with roughly half being in for-profit prisons operated by corporations that spend millions of dollars a year on lobbyists and campaign contributions.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights call the provision the “detention bed mandate. “  We also call it a prime example of GUI, or “governing under the influence.”

The “detention bad mandate” has been a provision of the federal budget since 2007.   The most recent version, written into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) section of the DHS budget approved in Congress on March 3,  states, “that funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2015.”

In his budget for the 2016 fiscal year, President Barack Obama proposed raising the number to 34,040.

“No other law enforcement agency in the country makes detention decisions based upon a need to fill beds rather than an individualized assessment of risk factors,” notes the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The policy leading to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of immigrants is not dictated by “homeland security” needs.  But it does meet the needs of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the two biggest operators in the prison-for-profit business.  Together they spent nearly $15 million on lobbyists from 2006 to 2014, and invested $2.7 million in candidates during the same period.

Their investment seems to be paying off.

CCA and GEO don’t leave their fortunes in the hands of lobbyists and Congress members alone.  Three of the last four directors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons have seats on the board of directors of CCA or GEO.  GEO also elected a former head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to its board.  Some people call this a “revolving door” between government service and service to big business.  We might call it the Cabinet to Corporate Board Pipeline. 

These two companies openly admit that reforms leading to fewer incarcerated immigrants would harm their business plans.   In the “Risk Factors” section of its Form 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), CCA reports that “any changes 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.”  Then the privatization leader singles out “Immigration reform laws” under consideration at the federal, state, and local level as a risk to their business model.

The GEO Group’s SEC documents reveal similar truths.

 Big corporations can get away with distortions in many venues, but “laws and regulations prohibit companies from making materially false or misleading statements in their 10-Ks,” states the SEC, which is responsible for regulating publicly traded corporations such as CCA and GEO.

The Problem with the Bed Mandate

It’s not just that people who shouldn’t be incarcerated are being held behind bars.  It’s also a fact that for-profit prisons have a deserved reputation for violence, escapes, and abuses, all at high cost to taxpayers and without the levels of accountability found in public sector facilities.   

In March the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ended a contract with the Management and Training Corporation, another prison-for-profit company, to run the Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas.  Following research into the Willacy County facility and others like it, the ACLU recently reported, “Our investigation uncovered evidence that the immigrants held in these private prisons are subjected to shocking abuse and mistreatment and discriminated against by BOP policies that impede family contact and exclude them from rehabilitative programs. Meanwhile, these private prisons operate in the shadows, effectively free from public scrutiny,” the ACLU wrote.  Closing Willacy County was a good move.

A recent letter to chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee signed by 62 members of Congress said, “The arbitrary and costly detention bed mandate runs counter to the best practices of law enforcement.  Indeed, no other law enforcement agency is subject to a quota dictated by Congress for the number of people it must keep in jail each day.  Eliminating the mandate would bring ICE in line with the best practices of other law enforcement agencies that use detention beds based on actual need and the potential risked posed by individual detainees.”   This letter was another good move.

Our next move is to find out what all of the presidential candidates think.  Should the companies benefitting from government contracts – often labelled “crony capitalists” by conservatives, be able to reinvest their profits in getting more government contracts?  Should people be imprisoned at all in facilities operated primarily in service to shareholders rather than the citizenry?  If you happen to run into Jeb Bush, Martin O’Malley, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or any of the rest of the pack, ask them for an opinion. 

And let us know what you find out.


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.