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Private Prison Companies Lobby Against Immigration Reform for Their Own Profit

Mike Corradini, JD on November 10, 2011

The recent news that the US government deported nearly 400,000 immigrants in the past year has been met with an outcry by immigrants and advocates around the country who witness the destruction to families and communities caused by these deportations. But one group has been quietly cheering on the push to detain and deport more immigrants than ever before. The private corrections industry, led by Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, has ramped up its lobbying effort at both the national and local levels to ensure that its detention facilities are used to detain more and more immigrants.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for running the sprawling system of immigration detention facilities, spends nearly $2 billion annually on detention operations. While only 6% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners are housed in private prisons, almost half of all immigration detainees are housed in privately-run detention centers, mostly by CCA and Geo.

With each detainee costing between $122 and $166 per night to detain, it is easy to see why these for-profit companies fight for tougher immigration laws and the increased use of immigration detention. In 2009, for example, CCA spent $1.98 million lobbying the federal government on issues related to private prisons. And in a recent SEC filing, Geo candidly noted that “Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities … Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

In addition to lobbying against immigration reform efforts, the private prison industry has been actively involved in crafting laws that would dramatically increase the number of detained immigrants. CCA, for example, is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and private corporations to craft policy. The language of SB 1070, the Arizona immigration law that aims to identify and arrest all undocumented immigrants in Arizona, was largely written in a December 2009 ALEC meeting after its main sponsor, state Senator Russell Pearce, presented his ideas to an audience that included CCA employees. These employees helped turn these ideas into model legislation at the ALEC meeting, and the legislation was later co-sponsored by 36 Senators, two-thirds of whom were either ALEC members or present at the meeting where SB 1070 was created. Thirty of these co-sponsors received donations from private prison contractors in the months after SB 1070 was introduced.

The decision to detain someone in an immigration detention facility, like the decision to sentence a criminal to a prison term, should never have any connection to the profit goals of corporations like CCA and Geo. The fact that their business models depend on increased detention, which in turn depends on blocking meaningful immigration reform and instituting harsher immigration laws, makes them much more than a neutral provider of services to the government. The private prison lobby has consistently shown its ability and willingness to use its considerable resources to advocate for policies that serve its bottom line at the expense of the civil and human rights of immigrants.



Places: United States