Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Is a Boom Time for Private Prisons

Give me your tired, your poor, your per diem…

Hardline immigration policies put in place by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have inspired more than just fear and panic in immigrant communities—they’ve also inspired investors in private prisons. In the week following the 2016 election, stock prices for the country’s two biggest prison companies rose by around a third, largely on the promise that the new administration would reverse the Obama administration’s move away from doing business with prison companies.

A year and half later, with the administration’s immigration crackdown in full swing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is forecasting that next year will bring a 23 percent increase over the already historic number of people it locked up daily in 2017. That’s good news for companies like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which take in millions of dollars from ICE to detain people awaiting immigration or asylum hearings. And they’re already planning to expand, with proposals for new private detention centers from Minnesota to Texas.

The growth of immigration detention

Between 2002, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, and 2017, the total number of immigrants arrested by ICE and apprehended by the Border Patrol fell by more than half, correlating with lower levels of illegal immigration. Yet the average daily population of US detention centers nearly doubled.

Who’s detained?

More than 300,000 people are put into immigration detention annually. Nearly three-fourths of those held each day are kept in privately run facilities, according to an ICE facility list obtained by the nonprofit Detention Watch Network. (Just 9 percent of state and federal prisoners are held in for-profit facilities.)

People in ICE detention are largely from Mexico, Central America, India, and China. They include adults and children, and they’re held for up to two months on average. Some are detained for years, with no right to an attorney

According to an internal ICE report from July 2016, fewer than half of the people booked into immigration detention that year had been convicted of a crime. 

Of every 100 immigration detainees…

32 are in GEO Group facilities

 
21 are in CoreCivic facilities

 
21 are in other private facilities

 
26 are in public jails

Locking up profits

As private prison companies have grown over the last decade, they’ve increasingly relied on immigration detention to boost business. Here’s the share of company revenue coming from ICE in 2007 versus 2017, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The price of immigration detention

Last year, ICE told Congress that it expects to hold a record 51,379 detainees in 2018, at a total price tag of $2.7 billion.

The agency’s 2019 budget request lays out the costs of detention:

How we got here

  • 1996: President Bill Clinton signs legislation expanding mandatory immigration detention.
  • 2004: The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act ramps up immigration detention capacity by 32,000 beds.
  • 2010: Congress sets a quota for the number of immigration detention beds.
  • 2012: GEO Group, the nation’s largest prison company, hires a senior executive who was previously assistant director of enforcement and removal for ICE—one of several revolving-door hires between ICE and private prison companies.
  • 2014: Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) announces its new South Texas Family Residential Center, which by 2016 would provide 14 percent of total company revenue. Immigrant advocates brand it a “baby jail.”
  • 2016: After the Obama Justice Department says it will cease contracting with private prisons, a Department of Homeland Security council votes to stop using private facilities to detain immigrants. A GEO Group subsidiary gives $225,000 to a pro-Trump super-PAC. GEO Group and CoreCivic each donate $250,000 to President Donald Trump’s inauguration fund.
  • 2017: The Trump administration says it will continue to work with private prisons. GEO Group and CoreCivic spend $2.6 million on federal lobbying. The immigration court backlog swells to more than 650,000 cases before 292 judges.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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