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.

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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

The two biggest for-profit corporate prison companies’ lobbyists are well connected to the members of the U.S. Senate “Gang of 8,” the Senators who crafted the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) package passed by the Senate mid way through 2013.iv Each company’s lobbyists strategically targeted the separate factions that together killed comprehensive immigration reform in the House of Representatives.

In 2013, these two prison companies divided their key tasks: CCA’s lobbying strategy focused on influencing the leadership bodies in both houses, lavishly funding the majority Democrats in the Senate and the majority Republicans in the House; meanwhile, GEO set to work undermining the lobbying efforts of pro-immigrant advocatesv. GEO achieved this by concentrating its influence on key Tea Party-approved Latinos with no family connections to deportable people: Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the Senate, and Idaho Representative, Raúl Labrador, in the

Corporate Prison Lobby Act One: Take the Senate

Early in 2013, most pundits said that passing CIR would require legislation that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a guarantee of a secure border--with Mexico, not Canada. The goal was to get a full vote in the Senate so that voters could hold politicians accountable. A bipartisan immigration reform work groups was appointed by the leadership. In order to have a good chance of getting the legislation passed, the work group had members that met one or more of the following attributes:

  • Aligned with Democratic Party’s caucus leadershipvii- Alignment with the majority party’s leadership, in theory, would ensure that the legislation would be efficiently assigned to the appropriate committees and in the committees themselves, pro-immigration legislation could get the votes needed to ultimately get put on the agenda for a vote of the full Senate or House.

  • Member of Appropriations, Judiciary, Finance (Senate) or Ways and Means (House) Committee viii - Judiciary committees are key in both houses because these committees are charged with defining what is or isn’t legal as well as what constitutes civil and criminal violations. The CIR legislation would have to pass this committee to start the process of an eventual vote by the full Senate (and later, the full House). Next, the Senate Finance Committee (and House Ways and Means Committee) are charged with finding the money for implementing the reform. Finally, its the Appropriations Committees that vote on which agency gets how much money for the various costs of implementation, such as prisons, guards, judges, lawyers, people processing legalization cases, documents, transporting prisoners, and public relations.

  • On good terms with the Tea Party ix- Representation from the Tea Party Republicans was key in the Senate because it was widely presumed that Tea Party Republicans could successfully filibuster to keep the Senate from voting on CIR. Tea Party Republicans had more power in the House because John Boehner needed their support to maintain his Speakership. Boehner, who controls what legislation gets voted on by the full House, did not want to lose their support.

  • Latinox - Both parties sought out Latino representation on the work groups to improve their respective standings with Latino voters.

In addition, according to reports filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and Secretary of the Senate, CCA and GEO spent $2.95 million lobbying Congress in 2012 and 2013. The two private prison companies, their lobbyists and major investors collectively gave the Gang of 8 Senators over $400,000. More than half of that went to senators Charles Schumer and Marco Rubio.xi

The Senate’s work group, called the Gang of 8, put together an immigration reform bill that passed by a majority of 68 Senators. According to an analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Office of Management and the Budget, the legislation would provide a path to citizenship for a potential 7 million undocumented immigrants and a path to prison for at least 4.5 million undocumented immigrants. xii

As the CIR bill progressed through committee hearings in the Senate most of the media attention was focused on Gang of 8 members, Schumer and Rubio.

New York Democrat Charles Schumer touted the Gang’s bill as a balanced approach to reform, which would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. and secure the border to keep more immigrants from crossing. With close ties to his party’s leadership, and as a member of the critical Judiciary and Finance committees, his broadcasts were well received on Capitol Hill. Behind the scenes, Schumer’s ledger balances were increasing due to his ties with CCA lobbyists. He also received over $80,000 in contributions from a major CCA institutional investor, Lazard Asset Management. After the Gang of 8’s bill passed the Senate, Lazard bought over 2 million shares of CCA stock.xiii

Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a darling of the Tea Party who won a straw poll of Tea Party members for Vice President in 2012, was the nominal spokesperson for the enforcement provisions of the Gang’s CIR bill. Rubio, a Latino with Cuban roots, had ties with GEO and its lobbyists, as well as personal investments in major GEO and CCA institutional investors.xiv Senate staffers gave him credit for language in the bill that expanded intense enforcement efforts beyond the border to the entire country by the Border Patrol’s reach to all international airports in the country. At the same time, Rubio supported a huge expansion of Operation Streamline, a deplorable criminal justice system in which immigrants are funneled by the Border Patrol directly into federal criminal courts and subjected to orchestrated group guilty pleas that land them in outsourced private prisons for the new crimes of illegal entry and illegal re-entry. xv

As Rubio’s enforcement wishes became known, $2.1 billion was added to the proposed 2014 budget for increased Federal Marshals whose duties include nothing but arresting and transporting immigrants, most of whom are sent to languish in for-profit private prisons. Neither party in Congress voiced any opposition as this $2.1 billion was exempted from the mandated across-the-board sequestration budget cuts.xvi Even the Department of Defense failed to avoid budget sequestration, but not for-profit private prisons.

During his regular quarterly conference call with investors, GEO Group CEO George Zoley announced that old friends in Washington D.C. had assured him that GEO’s projected growth in revenue from the federal government was not threatened by CIR. xvii

Corporate Prison Lobby Act Two: Take the House

After the Senate passed the Gang of 8’s CIR bill, attention turned to the deeply divided and Tea Party-friendly House. The Republican-dominated House formed its own work group, also a Gang of 8.

The House’s Gang of 8 began to fall apart the day after they reached a consensus on the House version of CIR. That’s when GEO and Tea Party favorite, Raúl Labrador (R-ID), publicly quit the group. xviii Labrador’s exit left the House’s immigration work group with a majority of Democrats, and the new moniker of the Gang of 7. This was a sign that the Republican controlled House was unlikely to pass CIR. A few days later, GEO’s best friend in the Senate, Marco Rubio, announced that he was quitting the Senate’s Gang of 8.

In one fell swoop, the for-profit corporate prisoner “immigrant market” ballooned from 4.5 million immigrant prisoners to 11.5 million, rewarding GEO a much larger prisoner market to compete in.

A few months later, Sam Johnson, a Boehner lieutenant in the House leadership hierarchy, and Tea Party member John Carter, both Texas Republicans, pulled out of the Gang of 7. Texas Observer reporter Christopher Hooks wrote that CIR was doomed in the House.

2013 was a good year for the private prison industry. CCA worked in the Senate to create a nearly passable bill that included a prioritization of enforcement and criminal prosecution of migrants—(this divided the immigrant rights community). GEO Group’s political strategy initially mirrored CCA’s, but eventually focused on derailing comprehensive immigration reform so that all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would be subject to civil detention and criminal prosecution that would land them in outsourced private prisons. Even without the passage of a CIR with strict enforcement requirements, illegal entry and illegal re-entry became the top crimes, and the U.S. Marshall Service wound up with an increased budget that allows them to detain immigrants in for-profit corporate facilities on their way to deportation or criminal justice proceedings. They netted a half billion of our tax dollars last year, and their CEOs have been giddy about prospects for 2014.

2014 and Beyond

The 2013 groups that pushed for just immigration reform legislation, policies that include a path to citizenship and reuniting families, are continuing their efforts in 2014. More deported youth will come back across the border; more detention buses will be challenged. More people will demand the release of greater numbers of incarcerated immigrants. Progressive national organizations continue demanding that Congress enact Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Civil and human rights groups are demanding that the government decriminalize undocumented immigrants.

These efforts are all good, but insufficient to win. To achieve humane, sensible reform, or at least to free undocumented immigrants from the threat of incarceration, the movement has to focus more on reducing the for-profit corporate prison industry’s influence on Congress. This is doable. The corporate prison industry’s existence depends on investments from public entities including cities, universities, retirement funds and other local institutions. The corporate prison industry’s profits are from taxpayer funds. Two key tactical demands that local groups can engage in are (1) stop financing for-profit corporate prisons and (2) simultaneously call on our congressional representatives to stop funding for profit prisons that are grossly inefficient. Remove investments, choke funding.

Winning legislation that reunites families and gets signed into law depends on a much more robust grassroots organizing strategy that focuses on reducing the influence of the for-profit corporate prison industry in Congress, and the growing local level mobilizations to pressure the Obama Administration to stop deportations through civil disobedience and other local public actions.


i William Selway and Margaret Newkirk, “Congress Mandates Jail Beds for 34,000 Immigrants as Private Prisons Profit” Bloomberg News, September 24, 2013

ii A 2010 study of court records conducted by Anita Sinja of the Advancement Project showed that CCA and GEO had each been ordered to settle more than 20 legal claims of wrongful deaths, sexual abuse, child abuse and other physical abuse of prisoners.

iii Interviews and written statements made to Enlace staff by immigrants incarcerated at the GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA state that prisoners are taken individually to a room where GEO and ICE personnel order them to sign documents that they cannot read. Those who refuse to sign are brutally beaten.

iv According to filings with the Secretary of the Senate and the Federal Elections Commission: David Carlin who lobbied for CCA gave Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, $5,200 in contributions and his firm, Aiken Gump et al gave Bennet $30,794; Vic Fazio, also of Aiken Gump, lobbied for CCA and gave Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, $1,000 and Aiken Gump gave Durbin $22,168; Robert Hobart and Steve McBee of McBee Strategies lobbied for CCA, Hobart gave Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, $2,000 and McBee gave Graham $2,500; Elise Pickering, Alex Vogel, and Brian Wild of Mehlman, Vogel, Castagnetti lobbied for CCA and gave $500, $1,000, and $500 respectively to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, and Brian Skladany Jr lobbied for and contributed $500 to Flake; Kelly Bingham and David Castagnetti, Jonathan Hogan, Stacey Rampy, and David Thomas of Mehlman Vogel lobbied for and gave Sen. Bob Menendez contributions totaling $8,300, and David Carlin, Karen Green, Brian Pomper, and Henry Terhune of Aiken Gump collectively gave $2,000 to Menendez, D-NJ, AIken Gump gave Menendez over $32,000; Robert Chamberlin of McBee Strategies lobbied for and contributed $750 to Marco Rubio, Chris Cox lobbied for GEO Group and gave Rubio $500, the GEO Group, itself, gave Rubio $34,300; David Carlin, Sean D’Arcy, Brian Pomper, and Henry Terhune of Aiken Gump, and who lobbied for gave Charles Schumer, D-NY $4,250 AikenGump gave Schumer over $60,000 and Kelly Bingham of Mehlman Vogel who lobbied for gave Schumer $2,500.

v Two lobbyists employed by Global Navigators, Danielle Burr and Chris Cox, filed reports with the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House revealing that they were paid lobbyists by both the GEO Group and the National Immigration Forum at the same time. GEO paid the pair more than the Immigration Forum paid them. Burr formerly worked for Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyle, a member of both the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees, as his Whip Liason. Cox formerly worked in the George W Bush White House as Legislative Affairs Special Assistant. GEO paid Burr and Cox considerably more than the Immigration Forum paid the pair.

vi Rubio is Cuban. US policy designated him a legal resident on arrival by virtue of the fact that his family immigrated from Cuba while Castro was President. Labrador is Puerto Rican and therefore a US citizen by birth

vii Schumer (D) and Graham ® in the Senate, and

viii Senate Gang of 8 members Schumer, Durbin, Flake and Graham sat on the Judiciary Committee; Schumer, Bennet; Menendez sat on Finance; Durin, and Graham sat on Appropriations. House Gang of 8 members Labrador, Carter, Gutierrez, and Lofgren sat on the House Judiciary Committee; Carter and Diaz-Balart sat on Appropriations; Becerra and Yarmuth sat on Ways and Means.

ix Senate Gang of 8 member Rubio won a Tea Party straw poll in 2012. House Gang of 8 members Labrador and Johnson voted regularly with the Tea Party Caucus in the House.

x Senate Gang of 8 Latino members were Menendez and Rubio. House Gang of 8 members were Labrador, Diaz-Balart, Becerra and Gutierrez.

xi 2012 -2013 filings, Federal Elections Commission, Clerk of the US House of Representatives, and Secretary of the US Senate

xii Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate, S. 744 Border Security, Economic Opportunity,and Immigration Modernization Act as reported by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on May 28, 2013, including the amendments made in the star print of June 6, 2013, June 18, 2013

xiii Lazard Asset Management 13F-HR SEC filings.

xiv Rubio received $34,300 from the GEO Group in 2012 and $35,800 in 2013. He received $3,350 from GEO lobbyists, and $114,050 from major GEO stockholders, FMR, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo in those years.

xv U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2011 ANNUAL REPORT, Chapter 5, available at

xvi OMB Sequestration Preview Report to The President and Congress for Fiscal Year 2014 and OMB Report to the Congress on the Joint Committee Reductions for Fiscal Year 2014

xvii The GEO Group (GEO) Q4 2012 Earnings Call February 21, 2013 11:00 AM ET

xviii Labrador has ties to Lionel Leo” Aguirre, GEO Group’s top lobbyist in Texas and Washington DC since 2007. Aguirre, who was named number 1 in Justice Strategies and Grassroots Leadership’s Hall of Shame Lobbyists for 2012. Labrador is the only member of Congress to have received contributions from Aguirre each of the past 3 years ($1,000 per year). By pulling out of the House Gang of 8, Labrador nearly doubled GEO’s potential market of federal immigrant prisoners over the next 2 years, removing GEO’s competition with CCA for prisoners as a significant threat to Geo’s revenue projections.