Debbie Wasserman Schultz's Support for a Private Immigration Detention Center Comes Back to Haunt Her

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is best known for her controversial tenure as chair of the Democratic National Committee. However, she is also currently running against Tim Canova, who is backed by Bernie Sanders, to keep her South Florida seat. While Wasserman Schultz has a 10-point lead over Canova, her leadership at the DNC has been scrutinized heavily since the email hack just days before the July convention. In the Facing South Florida debate, Wasserman Schultz sought to highlight her policy strengths as a lifelong "liberal Democrat," but stumbed when the issue of private prisons came up.


"One of the issues that your opponent has raised was your support in 2011—and I think we have actually the letter that you and Senator Bill Nelson signed—supporting the for-profit prison to be built in Southwest Ranches; was that support in 2011 a mistake?" CBS Miami's Jim DeFede asked Wasserman Schultz. 

"First of all, let's be clear on what that center was. That was an immigration detention center. It was not a prison...  there's a big difference between an immigration detention center and a prison," Wasserman Schultz answered. 

"But it was a for-profit entity that was going to run it?" DeFede asked.

Wasserman Schultz stumbled. 

"That, that, that was actually sought by the town of Southwest Ranches," she said. "The town Southwest Ranches supported and made the arrangements with that company to locate an immigration detention center. They had an agreement with ICE and with, with, with, the company that was going to build that center," she said. 

"You then later came out opposed to it, correct?" asked DeFede. 

"I would—let me be clear," said Wasserman Schultz. "I was doing what I always do, which is, when we have a municipality come to me and ask me for my help, you know, I, of course, we take a look at that issue very carefully and we do what we can to facilitate their request. I—"

"Was it a mistake to sign that letter, in hindsight?" DeFede asked. 

"No, it wasn't a mistake to be able to try to assist," Wasserman Schultz said. "This was an important... this was an important economic driver—Southwest Ranches, let's keep in mind, has no almost no commercial tax base. They only have about 7,000 people that live in Southwest Ranches, and so this was an opportunity for them to be able to generate revenue and also have a low-impact, a low-impact facility...."

"It was a bad decision," Tim Canova told her, adding, "and for-profit prisons and for-profit detention centers are not a good idea. Florida leads the country in for-profit detention centers and prisons. We should not have a permanent lobby that has an incentive to be locking folks up."

"Voters in Southwest Ranches [a community in the district] know all about her support for a private detention center in the city. The DOJ's decision wouldn’t apply to state and local or even ICE facilities, so ongoing projects can still resonate here," Canova told the Washington Post. 

In a study on how the prison lobby targets key house members, the Huffington Post found that in 2013, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who is on the House Budget and Judiciary committees, received money from: Akin, Gump et al. ($19,600); and contributions from Mehlman Vogel associates totaling $2,500. What these lobbyists want for their money is an immigration reform bill that tightens, rather than loosens the criminal net for undocumented workers and their families." 

The Florida primary is August 30. 

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