“If you want to understand any problem in America, you need to focus on who profits from the problem…”—Dr. Amos Wilson
Long before Donald Trump’s 2015 presidential announcement speech, in which he castigated and disparaged Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants, the United States already had the disgraceful distinction of maintaining the largest immigration detention system in the world. To make matters worse, a considerable number of the detention prisons are run on a for-profit basis by private prison companies. In 2016, the Obama Department of Justice announced that it would seek an end to the use of privatized prisons, citing safety, security and cost concerns. However, with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, that directive was quickly reversed, sending private prison stock prices soaring.
As I write, thousands of men, women, and yes, children, are being held captive in detention prisons all across the US. Originally, the sites were set up as minimum security, civil processing centers for foreigners who were awaiting immigration hearings. But detention centers became draconian hell-holes when the rich and powerful discovered they could make money from indefinitely imprisoning immigrants and refugees rather than simply processing them. Instead of being welcomed and encouraged to seek out the “American dream,” foreigners have become a commodity traded on the stock exchange. They’ve been reduced to human revenue streams for private corporations and a way to get votes and lobbying money for politicians (who also profit from the revolving door). And let’s not forget the weapons and security trade; they’re cashing in as well, and all of this is happening with our government’s consent and participation. (Right-wing media sites benefit, too, by scaring their mostly white audiences with daily propaganda — boosting ratings and lining their pockets at the same time.)
Until we wake up to these facts and demand change, then the suffering of human beings will continue to be commodified as an ongoing, ever-growing human revenue stream for the rich and powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the San Diego-Tijuana border.
On August 20, 2016, I made my way to the Mexican border on the San Diego side to take part in the 45th anniversary celebration of Friendship Park. The park has the distinction of being the only place along the 1,989-mile border between the US and Mexico where separated families can meet face-to-face, albeit only in one guarded area between 10am and 2pm on the weekends, and then, only through a rebar reinforced fence.
The pristine Pacific Ocean and protected wildlife habitat, not to mention the name “Friendship Park” made a mockery of the suffocating sadness suffusing the air as we gathered to perform a symbolic hugging ceremony on the beach with the people on the other side of the fence. It was part of the #LetThemHug campaign that “Friends of Friendship Park,” Border Angels and others are working diligently to make happen on a regular basis. US Border Patrol had placed orange cones on our side and we were told that any step past the cones toward the wall would result in arrest.
When the park was inaugurated in 1971 by First Lady Pat Nixon, she said at the time, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.”
Not only is the fence still there, but it is now so densely woven that loved ones are only able to touch finger-tips. Some haven’t held each other in years … or decades.
“We did that so they wouldn’t pass drugs back and forth,” a border agent tells us, his dark shades making his face inscrutable.
“Don’t you find this dehumanizing?” I ask, pointing to a crying woman.
He shrugs. “We’ve got to protect the American people,” he replies and walks away — but not too far. I look around at the people and families visiting at the wall, many of whom have spent time in detention centers. It is gut-wrenching to hear their stories and I think, Are these really the people we need protection from?
Harsher Laws Equal Higher Profits
In the name of “protection,” harsh laws — designed specifically to criminalize people who are seeking better lives — have pulled more and more families apart and have also made it legal to imprison more and more foreigners indefinitely. The United States went from 85,000 detainees in 1995 to 440,557 in 2013, and that number only keeps growing.
In the name of “defense,” severe regulations have created the ongoing need for costly new surveillance systems, more southern border agents and boatloads of bureaucrats to run the whole operation. Since 1993, the US Border Patrol budget (only one piece of the pie) has gone from $363 million to more than $3.8 billion in 2015. Your tax dollars at work.
In reality, the “protection and defense” laws are oppressive measures put in place simply to help legitimize the real goal, which is to maximize private prison company and private contractor profits. To be quite clear, there are billions to be had by fleecing the American public, especially when you can do it legally.
Often, these laws are written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit organization of conservative legislators and for-profit corporations. Included in this coalition are private prison corporations, which help draft legislation beneficial to themselves and their stockholders. (They were behind Arizona’s SB1070 which allowed the police to use racial profiling and demand papers to prove citizenship.)
How sweet is it to have politicians put into law the means for prison corporations to keep bilking the American public to the tune of billions and billions of dollars each year? No wonder Congress can’t pass humane immigration reform. It’s not within their best political interest — nor in the best interest of their corporate cronies — to do so. Politicians receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from private prison corporations and are inundated with lobbying perks. No one bites the hand that gets them elected — this despite strong statistics showing that private prisons cost us more, don’t make us safer and are inhumane.
Harsher laws equal higher profits. The bonus? Once someone is deemed a “criminal,” in the eyes of many people, they join the ranks of the “throw-away class” in American society. We don’t say that term out loud, but almost by tacit agreement, Americans have decided that once you’re deemed a “criminal” then you can be punished with impunity. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
In these detention prisons, human rights are violated daily. Men, women and children are subject to neglect, harassment, abuse (including sexual abuse), inadequate medical treatment, subpar food, employee theft, child abuse and solitary confinement. Many have died from lack of proper treatment. Detention Watch Network reports that “even when severe deficiencies are discovered and named in an inspection or death review, ICE has not terminated contracts or used available penalties, but rather continued to send immigrants to be held in unsafe conditions.”
The cruel treatment of immigrant and refugees has become a part of our enforcement culture. Homes are raided, and families are ripped apart and traumatized in the process. Detainees are shuffled from prison to prison, often across state lines, making it impossible for their families to find them or visit them. Immigrants who were brought here as children are being deported. They know no other home. Many have joined the military and have served their country with honor, only to be deported after being held in detention prisons. All of it — the making of money with draconian detention hell holes, the propaganda, the politicians who use immigrant hatred and “tough on crime” stances to get elected — all of it is a disgusting aberration of so-called American values.
The question is, do we have the collective will to change it?
Not far from San Diego’s Friendship Park is the Otay Mesa detention prison. The short drive from the border wall at the park brings you to the wall. This one keeps people in. Those inside have been criminalized and now languish indefinitely; separated from their loved ones. They risked their lives to come to the US. Why did they do it? John Steinbeck comes to mind. He wrote in The Grapes of Wrath, “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him — he has known a fear beyond every other.” Wouldn’t you risk anything for our own children?
Otay Mesa is a privately-run prison that, along with three others, has “the most notorious records of sexual abuse, detainee deaths and denial of medical care,” according to the ACLU. Because it is privately run, oversight is difficult. And, as Detention Watch Network reported, ICE hasn’t terminated private corporation prison contracts anyway. Quite to the contrary; ICE continues to send immigrants into these private prisons of death and disease.
Last year, amid public pushback, it looked as if private prisons would be phased out, but with Trump’s presidency, that may no longer be the case. Writes the ACLU,
Investors have good reason to believe that Trump will rely heavily on private prison companies. And indeed, when asked how he planned to reform the country’s prison system during a town hall this month, Trump stated: “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations, and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.”
Since his election, private prison stock has risen dramatically. CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) is up 140 percent and Geo Group’s stock has risen 98 percent. Can’t you see them all salivating and rubbing their hands together with glee?
Unless and until we wake up to these facts and demand change, then what should be the illegal incarceration of immigrants and refugees will continue. Their human rights will continue to be violated, and they will continue to be traumatized; some will die. Humans should not be a commodity traded on the stock exchange. Allowing them to be an ongoing, ever-growing human revenue stream for the rich and powerful is a travesty.
The question is, do we have the collective will to change it?
Join with others who are working for the human rights of immigrants and refugees. Border Angels, the ACLU, Families for Freedom, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), the LGBTQ group Mariposas Sin Fronteras and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR). Find your representatives and tell them where you stand on Immigration and Refugees!
Note: An earlier version of this piece appears at ZNet.