Caught in the Net of Corporate Greed: Our Immigrant Sisters and Brothers – AmyBeth Willis

AmyBeth Willis“You cannot serve God and wealth.” – Matthew 6:24b

At any given time in the United States of America, 34,000 jail beds are made ready for immigrants to fill. According to the April 2015 report by the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership ‘Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota’, sixty-two percent of these beds are now operated by private prison corporations, which rake in millions of profits from government contracts. Immigrants are now the largest market for these corporations.

Moreover, millions of dollars have been poured into the federal justice system to fund  the salaries of privately contracted defense attorneys, for example and into internal immigration enforcement, to accommodate the arrest, prosecution, detention, and deportation of immigrants. Immigrant detention has contributed to the 500 percent increase in our nation’s incarcerated population. In 2013, immigrants made up 10 percent of the federal prison population. This mass detention of immigrants has helped to increase the number of deportations. Under the Obama Administration, two million people have been deported. [1] This system is an affront to the Christian values of acting justly and welcoming the stranger.

History

The boom in modern immigrant detention began in the 1980s when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the Department of Homeland Security, DHS) signed a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to detain immigrants in response to the surge of immigrants from Central America. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act mandated that undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions be detained without bond; it also removed judicial discretion to review asylum cases of undocumented border crossers.

After September 11, 2001, INS was renamed the Department of Homeland Security and split into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This blurred the distinction between civil and criminal immigration enforcement. At the same time, from 2004 to 2012 the number of Border Patrol Agents on the ground rose by 85 percent, increasing apprehension capacity. [2]

The Immigrant Detention Bed Quota

In the mid-1990’s our country detained around 7,000 immigrants per day. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of detained immigrants hovered around 20,000. In 2009, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) added language to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 Appropriations bill instituting a quota of 33,400 detention beds. It has been renewed in the yearly federal budget since then, increasing to 34,000 in 2013. The market has caught up with this demand through the expansion of the private prison industry; its size has risen by 47 percent in the last ten years.[3]

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement maintains 82 detention centers across the nation to hold immigrants under removal proceedings. In fiscal year 2014, 32,163 immigrants were detained per day; this costs taxpayers two billion dollars per year, or five million dollars per day. [4]

The centers are concentrated in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia, with the rest scattered throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Prisons incarcerated 19,100 immigrants found in violation of federal immigration laws in 2013. This is separate from those detained by ICE under deportation proceedings.

Private Prison Industry Control

Out of eight private prison corporations, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group dominate the private prison industry; currently they each run twelve ICE-contracted facilities. Together they run eight out of the ten largest immigrant detention facilities in the nation. Since the implementation of the bed quota, CCA saw its profits rise from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014. In the same period, GEO Group’s profits rose by 244 percent from $41.8 million to $143.8 million. [5]

CCA and GEO Group’s domination of the industry did not occur by accident. From their start, both companies have captured the immigrant detention market through federal lobbying. Between 2008 and 2014, together they spent $16 million dollars. At the same time, the private prison industry donated “over $132,000 in campaign contributions to members of Congress on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, the birthplace and point of control for the immigrant detention quota.”[6]

Other companies stand to gain from increases in immigrant detention. G4S Wackenhut, a security company connected to GEO Group, also profits from the increased enforcement and detention of undocumented immigrants. They were first subcontracted in 2006 to transport immigrants to Border Patrol Stations after being apprehended in the borderlands. Their contract was renewed in 2013 for $234 million dollars. Once under Border Patrol custody, immigrants are detained for three or four days, often subjected to abuse and deprived of food or water.

Why Detain?

Although patterns of migration to the United States ebb and flow with U.S. economic productivity, the government maintains that detention is a deterrent to future immigration. [7] A 2013 report “In the Shadow of the Wall,” published by the University of Arizona and George Washington University “found that the majority of migrants intended to cross again, that the effect of deterrence was difficult to measure, and that deterrence has a limited impact compared with other factors such as family and economic need.”[8] As deterrence policies gain steam, migrants attempt to cross through more dangerous and remote terrain, resulting in more deaths on the border.[9]

More than detention itself, the increasing privatization of these prisons is hailed as a cost saving mechanism. However, Gary Mead, a former ICE Executive Associate Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, admitted that no independent studies have verified whether private prisons really cut costs.[10]

The government also claims that many immigrants present a flight risk as they undergo removal proceedings and therefore need to be detained. [11] Yet, the rise in apprehensions and detention has meant that the average wait time for a final ruling in an immigration court case is 550 days, greatly prolonging that detention.

Policies Promote Apprehension and Subsequent Incarceration

Policies such as Secure Communities and Operation Streamline and aggressive state laws such as S.B. 1070 in Arizona assist in the criminalization, apprehension, and detention of immigrants.

Secure Communities (S-Comm) was implemented in 2008 to aid the collaboration between the FBI and local law enforcement to detect national security threats. However, ICE uses it to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. When someone is arrested, their fingerprints are searched against  a national database to identify immigration violations. The program PEP-Comm, Priority Enforcement Program, replaced S-Comm in early 2015, but several of its problematic aspects remain.

In 2005, Operation Streamline began in Del Rio, Texas to fast track the prosecution of border crossers en masse. Six U.S/Mexico border cities followed suit, citing Streamline as a strategy to deter migration. In Tucson, Monday through Friday, up to 70 migrants are charged with illegal reentry, convicted and sentenced to one to six months of jail time within a short afternoon proceeding. Now, the majority of defense attorneys for migrants are privately contracted.[12] This initiative costs Arizona $120 million in court proceedings.[13] Yuma, Arizona, recently rolled back its use of Streamline because of exorbitant costs.

The state of Arizona passed S.B. 1070 in 2010 to re-classify state crimes related to immigration or legal status. CCA as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of state legislators, large corporations and corporate associations, was a part of the task force that drafted the law. [14] Thirty of the thirty-six legislators who co-sponsored the bill received contributions from three different private prison corporations.[15] S.B. 1070, dubbed the “show me your papers” law, encouraged local police officers to identify residents they suspect to be undocumented. Since its implementation, it has resulted in rampant racial profiling of Latinos in the state. In 2012, the Supreme Court did not challenge the “show me your papers” part of the law; this meant racially motivated stops and incarceration have continued. Copycat state legislation in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, and South Carolina followed, but courts have struck down the harshest parts of these laws.[16]

Family Detention

One of the most egregious forms of immigrant detention re-entered the stage last summer: family detention. Thousands of Central American families (68,684 family units arrived here in 2014) fled from violence, gang activity, and poverty to our borders, seeking a safe haven. ICE, at the Obama Administration’s direction, began to detain these mothers and children. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, claims that, “family detentions were meant to send a signal to other immigrants that they would not be simply released into the U.S. if they crossed the border.”[17] According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the majority of these families would qualify for asylum with proper legal representation.

This also has not occurred by accident– CCA and GEO Group lobbied heavily to secure contracts for family detention centers in South Texas. In June of 2014, family detention bed capacity was 90; by June of 2015 around 4,000 beds will be available. [18]

Advocates visiting these facilities have documented dehydrated and undernourished children. CCA operates the massive, 2,400 bed South Texas Family Residential Center, which opened in Dilley, Texas, in December of 2014. Recently, a group of mothers at the Karnes County Residential Center (operated by GEO Group) in Karnes City, Texas, have gone on two separate hunger strikes to protest the impact of incarceration on their children, as well to bring to light the harsh conditions, and the mistreatment by officials in the facility. [19] In 2009, the Obama administration closed the T. Don Hutto Residential Center (managed by CCA) in Taylor, Texas; there, children were forced to wear prison garb and access to medical care and nutrition was inadequate. [20]

Our Faith Call

Immigrant detention flies in the face of the core values of our Christian faith. For God calls us in Exodus 22:21 to not “mistreat or oppress a foreigner.” We also must recognize and welcome Christ in the stranger (Matthew 25:35). Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:24 that “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.” Privatized immigrant detention is a glaring example of how our nation’s policies serve moneyed interests over the common good. The very essence of corporations whose profits grow through the exploitation of immigrants is sinful. Thousands of our migrant brothers and sisters pay the price of this greed.

 

AmyBeth Willis hails from Murfreesboro, TN, and is a 2013 graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  In college, she studied Sociology, Religion and Spanish.  She spent the 2013-2014 year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ.  She is currently serving her second YAV year in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, in Washington, DC. She is passionate about the connection between her faith and justice work, especially in the areas of immigration, advocacy, and education.

 

[1] http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[2]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/race-multicultural/lost-in-detention/map-the-u-s-immigration-detention-boom/

[3]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[4]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[5]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[6]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/isabel-garcia/op-ed-response-to-senate-resolution-104_b_7154378.html

[8] http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/2014/10/17/operation-streamline-unjust/17444829/

[9] http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/nmd_fact_sheet_operation_streamline.pdf

[10]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[11]http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/node/2381

[12] http://endstreamline.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/OSL-estimated-costs.FY2013.pdf

[13] http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/nmd_fact_sheet_operation_streamline.pdf

[14] http://www.npr.org/2010/10/28/130833741/prison-economics-help-drive-ariz-immigration-law

[15]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[16] http://www.nilc.org/sb1070fouryearslater.html

[17] http://www.ibtimes.com/immigrant-mothers-begin-second-hunger-strike-massive-texas-detention-center-1883194

[18]http://grassrootsleadership.org/sites/default/files/reports/quota_report_final_digital.pdf

[19] http://www.ibtimes.com/immigrant-mothers-begin-second-hunger-strike-massive-texas-detention-center-1883194

[20] https://www.aclu.org/aclu-challenges-prison-conditions-hutto-detention-center

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