Last week the Department of Homeland Security announced that it is releasing an unknown number of detainees (probably in the several hundreds) from immigration detention centers. This may be just another shot in the sequestration battle, but for immigration law observers it’s a surprising move by an administration that has shown great interest in detention.
The agency has consistently explained that it will detain as many people as Congress pays for and its track record indicates it’s kept true to its word. Under President Obama, DHS has expanded its immigration detention capacity to record levels. For several years it has held the title of the nation’s largest prison agency, but last year’s 429,247 detainees vastly exceeded previous highs. Housing so many people comes at a steep cost—about $2 billion annually.
An ever growing chunk of this budget goes to private prison companies that own or operate facilities for DHS. The Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, the country’s two biggest private prison companies, “have more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005,” reported the Columbia Journalism Review last week. Meanwhile, GEO donated $6 million to Florida Atlantic University to buy the naming rights for the university’s football stadium, a move that resulted in students occupying the university president’s office.
The possibility that Congress and President Obama will agree on some version of immigration reform carries some risk that CCA and GEO’s business will dry up. President Obama’s leaked immigration proposal draft would narrow the categories of people who would be subjected to mandatory immigration detention, but it would also expand DHS’s power to issue detainers (also called “immigration holds”) thereby giving it more time to determine whether it wants to institute removal proceedings against individuals who encounter the criminal justice system, whether or not it leads to a conviction.
According to the Columbia Journal Review’s analysis, CCA and GEO Group appear well-positioned to ward off attempts to shrink the immigration detention population. Collectively, the private prison industry “has spent more than $45 million on campaign contributions and lobbying at the state and federal level” since 2005. Key legislators John McCain and Marco Rubio have each received tens of thousands of dollars from CCA or GEO Group—$32,146 for McCain and $27,300 for Rubio.
All the while, an Ohio legislative committee released a scathing review of the prison that the state sold to CCA in 2011 and has now been operated by the company for just over a year. The minimum and medium security Lake Erie Correctional Institutional is “in need of improvement,” the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found. Between 2010 and 2012, inmate-on-inmate assaults increased 187.5% and inmate-on-staff assaults grew by 305.9%, while fights increased by more than 40% since 2011. Perhaps relatedly, staff use of chemical agents increased 127.3% between 2010 and 2012. This is a frightening picture of what the company is capable of doing.