the Denver Post
MIAMI—The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation's largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns.
The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years thanks to government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually.
After a decade of expansion, the sprawling, private system runs detention centers everywhere from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark's airport, and is largely controlled by just
three companies. The growth is far from over, despite the sheer drop in illegal immigration in recent years.
In 2011, nearly half the beds in the nation's civil detention system were in private facilities with little federal oversight, up from just 10 percent a decade ago.
The financial boom, which has helped save some of these companies from the brink of bankruptcy, has occurred even though federal officials acknowledge privatization isn't necessarily cheaper.
This seismic shift toward a privatized system happened quietly. While Congress' unsuccessful efforts to overhaul immigration laws drew headlines and sparked massive demonstrations, lawmakers' negotiations to boost detention dollars received far less attention.
The industry's giants—Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp.—have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the last decade, the AP found.
CCA and GEO, who manage most private detention centers, insist they aren't trying to influence immigration policy to make more money, and their lobbying and campaign donations have been legal.
"As a matter of long-standing
Advocates for immigrants are skeptical the lobbying is not meant to influence policy.
"That's a lot of money to listen quietly," said Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, who has helped lead a campaign to encourage large banks and mutual funds to divest from the prison companies.
The detention centers are located in cities and remote areas
That's up from $80 in 2004. ICE said the $80 didn't include all of the same costs but declined to provide details.
Pedro Guzman is among those who have passed through the private detention centers. He was brought to the U.S. by his Guatemalan mother at age 8. He was working and living here legally under temporary protected status but was detained after missing an appearance for an asylum application. Officials ordered him deported.
Although he was married to a U.S. citizen, ICE considered him a flight risk and locked him up in 2009: first at a private detention facility run by CCA in Gainesville, Ga., and eventually at CCA's Stewart Detention Center, south of Atlanta. Guzman spent 19 months in Stewart until he was finally granted legal permanent residency.
"It's a millionaire's business, and they are living off profits from each one of the people who go through there every single night," said Guzman, now a cable installer in Durham, N.C. "It's our money that we earn as taxpayers every day that goes to finance this."
The federal government stepped up detentions of illegal immigrants in the 1990s, as the number of people crossing the border soared. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring many more illegal immigrants be locked up. But it wasn't until 2005—as the corrections companies' lobbying efforts reached their zenith—that ICE got a major boost. Between 2005 and 2007, the agency's budget jumped from $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion, adding more than $5 million for custody operations.
Dora Schriro, who in 2009 reviewed the nation's detention system at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said nearly every aspect had been outsourced.