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Private Prison Firm Exploiting Broken Immigration System

Who benefits from hyping criminal enforcement as the solution to the immigration issue? 

As a Service and Employees International Union (SEIU) campaign highlights, one key player profiting off the nation's broken immigration system is the private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).  CCA operates and profits significantly from private prisons across the country, many of which house immigrants in detention, a kind of legal limbo in which immigrants are imprisoned while their cases are being considered, or who are in the process of being deported.  Roughly 40 percent of CCA's profits stem from operating jails that house immigrants.  In fact, the corporation earned over $1.7 billion in revenue in 2009 alone -- much of it from contracts with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US Marshals Office, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to cope with the influx of nonviolent immigrants in the nation's prison system.  CCA has also been a long-time funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and member of its Private Sector Executive Committee, which advocates on behalf of CCA to push prison privatization as a model for states.

While most believe prisons are operated by state or federal governments, they are increasingly privatized.  As the number of immigration prosecutions continue to skyrocket and comprehensive immigration reform languishes in Washington, DC, this makes the business of operating prisons all the more lucrative for private firms.  According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), immigration prosecutions reached record levels in federal fiscal year 2009.  The Department of Homeland Security initiated 67,994 immigration prosecutions that year alone, a 459 percent increase from 2000 and a 973 percent increase from 1990.

Filling Up Prisons with Non-Violent Immigrants:  In addition, federal immigration authorities are increasingly targeting nonviolent immigrants, whose only offense is attempting to unlawfully cross the border, via efforts such as Operation Streamline, which focuses on apprehending nonviolent border-crossers.  According to a May 2010 study by the Warren Institute at the University of California, Berkeley Law School, projects such as Operation Streamline that focus on immigrants who haven't committed any crime in the US divert precious federal resources from apprehending drug cartels and human traffickers that frequently operate with impunity along stretches of the US-Mexico border and are responsible for much of the violence in the region.  These record numbers of nonviolent immigrants are, in turn, filling jails and immigration detention centers to capacity: contributing to growing costs to states and higher profits for private prison companies like CCA.

The Failures of Prison Privatization:  Both federal and state governments have utilized private firms to operate prisons, despite evidence of systematic failures. Privatization only exacerbates the challenges faced by states, communities, and families dealing with the broken immigration system.  For example, the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy finds that there is no compelling evidence that prison privatization has led to savings, while the Private Corrections Institute analyzes several issues with privatization, which include “major riots, sex abuse scandals”¦ improper billing by private prison companies”¦ employment law violations, higher employer turnover rates, increased levels of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence, lack of transparency and public accountability, and higher recidivism rates for inmates released from privately-operated prisons.”

When privatization involves prisons and detention centers, the profiteering comes at the expense of constitutional safeguards, democratic oversight, and public trust.  In this case, it also undermines legislative efforts to promote progressive immigration reform.  Lawmakers should take action to prevent such debacles from occurring by either halting failed privatization schemes. For example, Indiana Rep. Gail Riecken's introduced a bill to end privatization of social services in her state.  Legislators can also consider requiring augmented transparency of state contracting, much like initiatives in Alabama,  Hawaii, and Vermont.

Resources:
Immigration Policy Center - US Border Enforcement Prioritizes Non-Violent Migrants Over Dangerous Criminals
Immigration Policy Center - New Data on Federal Court Prosecutions Reveal Non-Violent Immigration Prosecutions Up
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse - Immigration Prosecutions at Record Levels in FY 2009
Immigration Policy Center -  Throwing Good Money After Bad: Immigration Enforcement Without Immigration Reform Doesn't Work
University of California, Berkeley Law School Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity - Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline
Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy — Are Florida’s Private Prisons Keeping Their Promise
Private Corrections Institute — Quick Facts About Prison Privatization
Private Corrections Institute — Report on Prison Privatization Plagued with Conflicts of Interest, Faulty Data, Political Connections
Progressive States Network - Privatization During an Economic Downturn: Still Inefficient and Problematic
OneAmerica - Voices from Detention: A Report on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma Washington
AFSCME - Prison Privatization Resources