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How the For-Profit Corporate Prison Lobby Killed Immigration Reform

To free undocumented immigrants from the threat of incarceration, the focus has to be on reducing the corporate prison industry’s influence on Congress.

Photo Credit: Dabarti CGI


Most national leaders are telling their constituencies that bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform is not a possibility this year. Acts of civil disobedience and militant, grassroots efforts to stop deportations are spreading across the country. Missing in the strategy is the power of the for-profit corporate prison industry. To win, the immigration reform movement has to weaken the private prison corporate lobby.

The immigrant rights movement made major headway in the fight for human rights and equal justice in 2013. Worker centers and several key unions stepped up their efforts by organizing popular support to pressure Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE and local sheriffs to free detained immigrants. The movement also mobilized constituents to pressure reluctant Congressmen to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform, CIR. More people than ever in the social justice and economic justice movements began to see that immigration policy is the nation’s labor policy. When 2013 began, a majority of Americans opposed legal status for undocumented immigrants. But by the fall of 2013, a growing majority switched to favoring a path to citizenship for the same people. While persuading the hearts and minds of the American majority is progress, there’s less and less correlation between what Americans want and what Congress does. The Dream Act had overwhelming support, and, despite this support, died in the US in 2010.

The owners of the for-profit corporate prison system and their lobbyists have more power than all the human rights forces combined. Overcoming the pro-incarceration, anti-immigrant lobby that thrives on government enforcement of the racially motivated U.S. immigration system is key to stopping the mass arrests, incarcerations, and deportations of hardworking immigrants. To overcome that lobby, pro-human rights, pro-immigrants forces need to convince the local, public institutions that finance for-profit corporate prisons to divest from the prison industrial complex and invest their (and the publics) money in something else.

The Power Structure Behind the Anti-Immigrant Movement

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO) waged a sophisticated lobbying effort that helped kill the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in 2013. They also succeeded in securing increased congressional funding to incarcerate those same people in for-profit prisons.Together, these two corporations, whose core business is incarcerating an ever- expanding number of people of color, control nearly 80% of the private prison beds in the U.S. through government contracts. This arrangement costs taxpayers over $3 billion a year. Public funding, private profit.

CCA and GEO profit from over $1 billion in federal contracts to build and manage prisons to incarcerate immigrants. i CCA and GEO control half of the 34,000 immigrant detention beds in this country, and most of the Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. These companies also depend on the US Marshals Service and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to capture enough immigrants to maintain a taxpayer-financed 90% minimum inmate occupancy in CCA and GEO prisons. Last fall an effort in the House of Representatives to do away with the requirement that the government provide enough prisoners to keep GEO and CCA prisons above 90% capacity was undermined and ultimately defeated by Republicans while Congress wrangled over sequestration and other budget cuts.

Taxpayers fund facilities that are abusive to the incarcerated and the workers who manage them. Conditions are horrendous in for-profit prisons, particularly in those that house immigrants. Studies have shown that rape and sexual assault are rampant across the system. Both CCA and GEO have been forced to pay large settlements in scores of cases of prisoner abuse, so any refutable cost-savings of a private system go out the window once these millions in lawsuits are taken into account. ii Immigrant detainees report being separated from their peers and brutally beaten by prison staff for refusing to sign documents they do not understand, written in a language they can’t read. iii

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