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The New Operation Wetback

Last week Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) joined a demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest the refusal of President Obama to use his executive powers to halt the deportations of the undocumented. Gutierrez’ arrest came only two days after Obama had addressed a conference  of the National Council of La Raza. Conveniently forgetting the history of the civil right struggles that made his Presidency a possibility, Obama reminded those attending that he was bound to “uphold the laws on the books.”

With over 392,000 deportations in 2010, more than in any of the Bush years, many activists fear we are in the midst of a repeat of notorious episodes of the past such as the “Repatriation” campaign of the 1930s and the infamous Operation Wetback of 1954, both of which resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Latinos.

But several things are different this time around. A crucial distinction is that we are in the era of mass incarceration. Not only are the undocumented being deported, many are going to prison for years before being delivered across the border.  While the writings of Michelle Alexander and others have highlighted the widespread targeting of young African-American males by the criminal justice system, few have noted that in the last decade the complexion of new faces behind bars has been dramatically changing. Since the turn of the century, the number of blacks in prisons has declined slightly, while the  ranks of Latinos incarcerated has increased by nearly 50%,  reaching just over 300,000 in 2009.

A second distinguishing feature of the current state of affairs is the presence of the private prison corporations. For the likes of the industry’s leading powers,  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, detaining immigrants has been the life blood for reviving their financial fortunes.

Just over a decade ago their bottom lines were flagging. Freshly built prisons sat with empty beds while share values plummeted. For financial year 1999 CCA reported losses of $53.4 million and laid off  40% of its workforce. Then came the windfall  – 9/11.

In 2001 Steven Logan, then CEO of Cornell Industries, a private prison firm which has since merged with GEO,  spelled out exactly what this meant for his sector :

“I think it’s clear that with the events of Sept. 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more people are gonna get caught…So that’s a positive for our business. The federal business is the best business for us. It’s the most consistent business for us, and the events of Sept. 11 are increasing that level of business.”

Logan was right. The Patriot Act and other legislation led to a new wave of immigration detentions. By linking immigrants to terrorism, aggressive roundups  supplied Latinos and other undocumented people to fill those empty private prison cells. Tougher immigration laws mandated felony convictions and prison time for cases which previously merited only deportation. Suddenly, the business of detaining immigrants was booming.  PBS Commentator Maria Hinojosa went so far as to call this the new “Gold Rush” for private prisons.

The figures support Hinojosa’s assertion. While private prisons own or operate only 8% of general prison beds, they control 49% of the immigration detention market. CCA alone operates 14 facilities via contracts with ICE, providing 14, 556 beds. They have laid the groundwork for more business through the creation of a vast lobbying and advocacy network. From 1999-2009 the corporation spent more than $18 million on lobbying, mostly focusing on harsher sentencing, prison privatization and immigration.

One significant result of their lobbying efforts was the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, a law which nearly provides police with a  license to profile Latinos for stops and searches.  The roots of SB 1070 lie in the halls of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a far right grouping that specializes in supplying template legislation to elected state officials. CCA and other private prison firms are key participants in ALEC and played a major role in the development of the template that ended up as SB 1070.

For its part, GEO Group has also been carving out its immigration market niche. Earlier this year they broke ground on a new 600 bed detention center in Karnes County, Texas. At about the same time the company bought a controlling interest in BI Corporation, the largest provider of electronic monitoring systems in the U.S.  The primary motivation for this takeover was the five year, $372 million contract BI signed with ICE in 2009 to step up the Bush initiated  Intense Supervision Appearance Program. (ISAP 11). Under this arrangement the Feds hired BI to provide ankle bracelets and a host of other surveillance for some 27,000 people awaiting deportation or asylum hearings.

Sadly, the Obama presidency has consistently provided encouragement for the likes of CCA and GEO to grow the market for detainees. While failing to pass immigration reform or the Dream Act, the current administration has kept the core of the previous administration’s immigration policy measures intact. These include the Operation Endgame,  a 2003 measure that promised  to purge the nation of all “illegals” by 2012 and the more vibrant Secure Communities (S-Comm).  Under S-Comm the Federal government authorizes local authorities to share fingerprints with ICE of all those they arrest.  Though supposedly intended to capture only people with serious criminal backgrounds, in reality S-Comm has led to the detention and deportation of thousands of people with no previous convictions.

At the National Council of La Raza’s Conference Obama tried to console the audience by saying that he knows “very well the pain and heartbreak deportation has caused.”  His words failed to resonate. Instead Rep. Gutierrez and others took to the streets, demonstrating that “I feel your pain” statements and appeals to the audacity of hope carry little credibility these days. It is time for a serious change of direction on immigration issues or pretty soon, just as Michelle Alexander has referred to the mass incarceration of African-Americans as the New Jim Crow,  we may hear people start to call the ongoing repression of Latinos a “New Operation Wetback.”

James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his six and a half years of incarceration. He can be reached at waazn1@gmail.com

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James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com

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