Meet the Private Prison Lobby

As the immigration reform debate heats up, an important argument has been surprisingly missing. By granting legal status to immigrants and ordering future flows, the government could save billions of dollars. A shift to focus border security on real crime, both local and cross-border, would increase public safety and render a huge dividend to cash-strapped public coffers.

This kind of common-sense immigration reform has the multibillion-dollar private prison industry shaking in its boots. Its lobbyists are actively targeting members of congressional budget and appropriations committees to not only maintain, but increase incarceration of migrants — with or without comprehensive immigration reform.

While a broad public consensus has formed around the need to legally integrate migrants into the communities where they live and work, private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, thrive off laws that criminalize migrants, including mandatory detention and the definition of immigration violations as felonies.

CCA and GEO also know that in the current immigration debate they cannot come straight out and say ‘immigrants should be defined as criminals because it makes us rich’—even though it does. CCA comes pretty close to saying this in its 2010 Annual Report, when it warns that “any changes [in the laws] with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

So most of their work is behind the scenes. Their number-one goal: to assure that no matter what else happens, Operation Streamline—their goose of the golden eggs—survives, with more money than ever.

Border enforcement and immigration reform

Operation Streamline began in 2005, and it imprisons men and women for immigration violations, sometimes up to 10 months or more, and it channels more than $1 billion a year in federal funds to private-run detention centers.

Bob Libal, of Grassroots Leadership, which issued a major report on Operation Streamline’s migrant-to-prison pipeline last year, commented on Operation Streamline and related programs, “These are programs where immigrants lose years of their lives and taxpayers lose billions of dollars, but the private prison corporations are counting on these programs to make profits to pay their executives exorbitant salaries and reinvest their money in lobbying efforts.”

He notes that the problem of decoupling immigration reform from enforcement is a political—and economic—one. “There is no legal reason why we can’t fix our immigration system and legalize people who are here without increasing border militarization and criminal penalties.”

It would seem contradictory for a program that rounds up undocumented migrants to be funded alongside comprehensive immigration reform. Yet both President Obama’s plan and the plan put forward by the Gang of 8 senators call to increase Border Patrol enforcement programs.

Enlace, coordinator of the National Private Prison Detention Campaign, has compiled data on private prison industry money to pressure Congress for more enforcement business in any comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Lobbying for Lock Up

Private prison corporations, especially CCA and GEO, have begun a massive effort to assure that even if immigration reform goes through, the practice of locking people up for immigration infractions will continue.

They have the money and the clout to push their agenda on the hill. Working without fanfare, the private prison lobby has targeted key Congressional representatives, especially on the finance, budget and judiciary committees. Using the lever of hefty campaign donations, lobbyists for these companies have been working for years to get Congress members in their pockets by slipping money into theirs.

First, a brief guide to the private prison lobby. Numbers are from their 2012 quarterly lobby disclosure reports filed with the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House. The Center for Responsive Politics has a useful site where much of this information is posted.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, lobbyist for CCA, received $220,000 for its services for CCA in 2012.

Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., received $280,000 to lobby for CCA in 2012. McBee Strategic Consulting received $320,000 in 2012 from CCA. CCA in-house lobby registered $970,000 in lobbying for 2012.

Navigators Global lobbies for GEO. GEO paid Navigators Global $120,000 for lobbying in 2012. Lionel (Leo) Aguirre was also paid $120,000 for lobbying for GEO.

Among the gang of eight senators, all but Lindsay Graham and John McCain have received significant money from the private prison corporations. The transparency watchdog, Open Secrets, compiled the figures by adding contributions from members, employees, PACs or immediate family members of the organization.

* Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): Chair of the Rules Committee, Member of Judiciary and Chair of Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Enforcement. In 2012, Schumer received at least $64,000 from lobbyists Akin Gump et al, and $2,500 from Mehlman Vogel. He also received $34,500 from FMR (Fidelity), which owns 5.09 percent of CCA and 8.67 percent of GEO.

* Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): Member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Foreign Relations, received $29,300 from the GEO Group. Wells Fargo (also heavily invested in private prisons) gave Rubio $16,150.

* Bob Menendez (D-N.J): Finance Committee, new chair of Foreign Relations, received more than $39,000 in documented money from private prison lobbyists, with $34,916 coming from Akin Gump, $6,300 from Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. and $1,000 from McBee Strategic Consulting.

* Michael Bennet (D-Colo.): Finance Committee, received at least $30,794 from
Akin Gump.

The prison lobby also targeted other key members of Congress. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Budget committee and member of Appropriations, received $21,600 from Akin Gump; $74,700 from McBee Strategic Consulting.

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 inhumane and illogical step of pre-deportation detention was invented by the private prison industry. Last year, the Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement, including detention, than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined — a staggering $18 billion. The detention centers receive $166 per person, per day in government funds — an amount that would be a godsend to a homeless family or unemployed worker.

Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, director of Enlace, notes, “The private prison industry is swamping the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees to try to buy them to keep Operation Streamline so they can incarcerate more immigrants in private prisons despite immigration reform.” There is nothing surprising about that, he adds, “That’s their business.”

The national movement made up of local organizations against private detention centers has a simple demand — stop funding private immigrant detention centers. They have blocked construction of new prisons and pressured investment funds and individuals to divest from private prison stock. They have also turned their sights on the politicians that feed federal money into the system.

Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a member of the divestment campaign, explains that her group is meeting with Florida Congressional representatives to counteract the influence of the private prison lobby.

“In the broadest sense, what we’re trying to do is to show the financial impact on policies and the conversation in the context of immigration reform,” she says.

Are members of Congress being bought off? Rodriguez replies, “I think that when people are being heavily lobbied and when there’s financial interests involved and when our representatives are benefiting from those financial interests directly through lobbying, it compromises their ability to do what’s right for taxpayers and immigrant families.”

Campaign leaders say it’s important for constituents to know the kind of pressure their representatives are under.  There’s a lot at stake for the private prison companies. CCA and GEO reported combined revenues of $3 billion dollars in 2011, with nearly half — $1.3 billion — coming directly from federal government, according to 2011 annual reports. They will fight hard for continued incarceration under immigration reform — whether it makes sense policy-wise or not.

The human rights issues involved in locking up migrants for profit, separating families and detaining individuals in poor and humiliating conditions rarely even make it into the debate. Instead, politicians are tempted to curry support among the prison industry and conservatives, with more talk of “enforcement” as the trading chip for citizenship and less talk of human rights.

Meanwhile, citizen groups are hoping that greater transparency and public awareness of the role of private prison corporations will lead to a more lasting and rights-based comprehensive immigration reform, one where for-profit immigrant detention centers become a relic of a crueler past.

Laura Carlsen is Director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City www.cipamericas.org.

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Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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