With billions of dollars at stake under immigration reform legalizing undocumented immigrants (and reducing the number of people subject to detention), it should come as no surprise that Congress isn’t in a hurry to act. The Star Tribune June 5 article “Ellison seeks change after detainee reports abuse” points out one of the most troubling drivers of federal immigration policy: the detention business. The article notes that “as required by Congress,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detains at least 34,000 individuals across the country each day in a network of county jails, privately run contract facilities and federal facilities that cost taxpayers $2 billion each year” and that the “contracts to keep the ICE detainees have proved lucrative for private and public corrections facilities.”
To appreciate just how lucrative, look at the dollars that private prison companies are willing to spend on lobbying. According to Detention Watch Network, in 2013, the GEO Group, which operates one-third of the nation’s immigration detention beds, paid in-house lobbyists $1.2 million and outside lobbyists another $880,000 convincing Congress to act in the corporation’s interests. Minnesota counties have gotten in on the action. Minnesota’s Sherburne County jail, where an assault of an 18-year-old ICE detainee took place, is 10 years into a 30-year contract with federal immigration authorities and proudly touts that the “majority of bed space is rented to the federal government and generates significant revenue.”
By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of The Advocates’ for Human Rights’ Research, Education, and Advocacy Program. Garnett McKenzie’s article appeared on the Star Tribune’s opinion page on June 9, 2014.