With Jailed Asylum-Seekers on the Rise, Detention Contractors Reap Profits

As the case backlog in immigration courts swells and detention beds fill with asylum-seekers waiting for a day in court, so do the pockets of private prisons, security contractors and tech firms.

The number of families fleeing violence and poverty and apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 300 percent this fiscal year, challenging an already strained immigration system, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This comes as the nation’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reels from a recent overhaul.

Last week, Kirstjen Nielsen stepped down as secretary of DHS after just over two years. Nielsen’s legacy will likely be stained by the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, separating over 2,700 immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border last year. The government has yet to reunite all separated families.

Despite recent upheavals in the Trump administration, private contractors profiting from the detention of immigrants have little to worry about.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a department of DHS) contracts with private security corporations to run some of the 250 immigrant detention facilities across the U.S. The two most profitable private companies contracted to manage detained immigrants include The GEO Group and CoreCivic (previously known as Corrections Corporation of America). Each has its own cozy history with the federal government.

The lobbying arm of GEO Group spent $1.56 million on lobbying in 2018, deploying only lobbyists who previously worked in government. It also contributed $275,000 to pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now in 2016. CoreCivic followed closely behind in its lobbying expenditures, shoveling out $1.23 million in 2018, and also giving $378,000 in contributions (93 percent went to Republican candidates).

These lobbying efforts come as the companies rack up massive profit from government contracts.

GEO Group and CoreCivic receive multi-million dollar contracts from DHS to run detention facilities. Since 2017, ICE has signed over $450 million worth of contracts to GEO Group, and $280 million to CoreCivic, according to USAspending.gov. The more people locked up in detention facilities, the more money private contractors receive. In a 2019 budget proposal, ICE estimated a bed in a privately contracted detention facility to cost $148.43 per day.

For their part, the two companies have said they do not have a hand in influencing policies on detention. “It’s important to note that, under long-standing policy, CoreCivic does not advocate for or against legislation or policies that determine the basis for or duration of an individual’s detention,” CoreCivic said in a statement. GEO Group took a similar stance.

But the apprehension and detention of immigrants crossing the border is not slowing down, and the number of asylum applicants has reached record highs, according to Department of Justice data. Trump’s proposed 2020 budget calls for $2.7 billion for ICE to increase detentions to an average of 52,000 immigrants a day and a Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Fund to bolster the capacity of detention to 60,000 a day.

Nielsen wrote an “urgent request” to Congress on March 28, urging lawmakers to address the shortage of beds. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to add 3,200 beds for children at Homestead Temporary Shelter, a privately contracted shelter in Florida. And cities from El Paso, Texas to New Richmond, Wisconsin, may see new detention centers crop up soon.

Meanwhile, conditions at detention facilities have undergone scrutiny. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report to Congress in 2015 citing civil rights violations occurring at for-profit detention centers. USCCR Chair Martin R. Castro implored Congress to find alternatives to incarcerating immigrants.

Most immigrants seeking asylum have no criminal record, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database, but the government provides few alternatives to detention. Asylum-seekers sometimes wait years for their day in immigration court.

Regardless of who fills Nielsen’s seat on a permanent basis, Trump’s statements foreshadow a new chapter in DHS, replete with stricter border control measures and more profit for the private prison industry.

Trump recently pulled his nomination of Ron Vitiello as head of ICE on the grounds that Vitiello would not take a “tough” enough stance on immigration. Following Trump’s comments, Vitiello resigned as acting director of ICE. Matthew Albence, another senior ICE official, will likely serve as the agency’s acting head. Albence once equated detention centers for families and children to “summer camp” at a congressional hearing.

Trump named Kevin McAleenan, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, as acting DHS secretary. Having climbed his way up in CBP since 2006, McAleenan comes to Trump’s cabinet as an outlier. Unlike the vast majority of Trump’s cabinet, McAleenan is not a revolving door appointee, former lobbyist or a donor to the president.

McAleenan may be lauded as a career public servant, but his background as an enforcer of national security makes it likely he will uphold the administration’s aggressive tightening of immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In his role overseeing CBP, McAleenan had a direct hand in carrying out Trump’s orders related to border security. He managed a $13 billion budget and over 60,000 employees. In other words, he ran the largest law enforcement agency in the country. CBP placed 240,000 immigrants in ICE custody last fiscal year.

When McAleenan assumed his new role, he simply transitioned from one colossal budget to another, becoming the highest-ranking immigration official in the country.