Why Our Broken Immigration System Can’t Be Fixed

Prison - CCACreating a judicial Prison - GEOprocedure that criminally prosecutes violators of immigration policies has been a boon for the private prison industry. Leveling criminal charges is highly profitable. Once sentenced, defendants are handed over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons who in turn places these undocumented immigrants in for-profit prisons, which in 2015 represented 62 percent of all immigration detention beds. The for-profit prisons are mainly operated by the CCA, which controls 92,500 beds in 67 facilities; and the GEO Group, which controls 73,500 beds in 66 facilities. Together, these two corporations represent the vast majority of the private prison market.

Ironically, during the 1990s, CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy and GEO stock were at an all-time low. Fortunately for them, during the first decade of Operation Streamline (2005-2015), the detention system increased by 75 percent. Unprecedented rates of undocumented border-crossers were, and continue to be incarcerated on average for 180 days; overburdening the federal criminal justice system, but providing tremendous revenues to the for-profit private prison industry. The incarceration cost to the American taxpayer since the start of Operation Streamline through 2012 has been $5.5 billion, with much of this money going directly to CCA and GEO.[1]  In 2012, the federal government used taxpayers’ monies to compensate CCA $757 million (plus $1 billion in state funds) and GEO $533 million (plus $947 million in state funds) for contracted services.[2] While these corporation charge the U.S. government about $164 a day to house one immigrant, community-based alternatives can provide the same service at about $12 per day. And while the so-called “common wisdom” is that because private prisons are more efficient they are cheaper than state-run prisons; a study conducted by the Arizona Department of Correction revealed that state-run prisons could cost $1600 less per inmate per year.  The study also showed how the illusion of more cost-effective private prisons was maintained by their refusal to accept relatively unhealthy prisoners, leaving their higher maintenance to the State and the taxpayers.

To ensure the profits of these for-profit prison, almost two-thirds of all prison contract mandate a minimum occupancy level (usually 90 percent), and if the government is unable to supply sufficient inmates to meet the minimum occupancy, then taxpayers must pay for empty beds; hence an incentive to send more migrants to prison. Furthermore, Congress mandates that at least 34,000 immigrants must be detained on any given day.  Corporate profits and political donations are exchanged for the imprisonment of brown bodies. No wonder these for-profit corporations, since 1989, funneled more than $10 million to political candidates (with Republicans being the main beneficiaries) and have spent almost $25 million on lobbying efforts for legislation like Arizona’s highly controversial anti-immigrant laws. These lobbying efforts ensure the writing of state and federal laws that requires imprisonment for the undocumented.

Latinxs, who represents about 18 percent of the population, now comprise the majority of all people in federal prison, thanks to Operation Streamline. Of course, not every migrant caught crossing the border experiences this legal procedure. An undocumented number are simply deported without any trial, raising concerns of number manipulation to demonstrate fewer convictions (hence incorrectly associating these numbers with fewer immigrants crossing as argued by Homeland Security), which falsely justifies that militarizing the border since 1994 is indeed working. And yet, while claiming success, more prisons are being built. The amount of profits to be made has these corporations building detention centers that can now house the whole family – mothers and children. On December 2014, a for-profit detention facility was opened in Dilley, Texas with the capacity of housing 2,400 mothers and their children. We are a nation that has infants and children behind bars! When seven House members visited the Dilley facilities, they were met with chants in Spanish of “We want freedom!” At first, the situation appeared to be changing. On June 24 2015, Homeland Security announced plans to end long-term detention of mothers and children caught crossing the border once they pass the first hurdle of the asylum process, an interview to voiced their fears for returning home. However, by August 2015, the Obama administration, while agreeing with the June reforms; nonetheless argued that facilities housing mothers and children remain an effective tool in deterring border crossings.[3]

Ironically, many who support family values have created the very laws that have torn families apart. Ironically, those centering their faith on the importance of maintaining and sustaining the integrity of the family remain silent as Latinx fathers and mothers are separated from their children, imprisoned, then deported. This broken system can never be fixed, for if it ever were, these for-profit prisons would lose billions in federal monies and possibly go bankrupt. There is profit to be made on brown bodies!

This essay is based on my upcoming (Summer 2016) book: The Immigration Crises: Toward an Ethics of Place

Miguel A. De La Torre


[1] Alistair Graham Robertson, Rachel Beaty, Jane Atkinson, Bob Libal, Operation Streamline: Costs and Consequences (Charlotte, NC: Grassroots Leadership, September 2012) 3.

[2] Mike Tartaglia, “Private Prisons, Private Records,” Boston University Law Review Vol. 94, No. 5 (October, 2014): 1695-6.

[3] Oliver Laughland, “Justice Department Asks Judge to Leave Migrant Families in Detention Centers,” The Guardian, August 7, 2015.

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