Who Profits?

One way to understand the obstinacy of House Republicans when it comes to reforming the nation’s immigration laws is to look at who profits financially from the status quo. Although the Senate passed reform legislation a year and a half ago, the House has yet to vote on the bill. One reason may be that some constituents are cashing in on the stalemate. There is money to be made from keeping as many immigrants as possible in “illegal” status for as long as possible.

The late Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, is credited with creating the so-called “bed mandate,” a federal law that currently requires the detention of a minimum of 34,000 immigrants at any given time. The mandate is embedded in the appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under the heading “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Salaries and Expenses,” the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, requires “that funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds through September 30, 2014.” Funding continues under a continuing resolution approved in September 2014, which extended the funding of the federal government through December 11, 2014.

From 2009 through 2011, the bed mandate required the detention of 33,400 immigrants. The quota was raised to 34,000 in 2012. In its budget request in early 2013, DHS recommended that the requirement be lowered to 31,800 and that funding for less costly alternatives to detention be raised. This would have saved approximately $120 million and would “ensure the most cost-effective use of Federal dollars, focusing the more-costly detention capabilities on priority and mandatory detainees, while placing low-risk, non-mandatory detainees in lower cost alternatives to detention programs.” Rather than taking the opportunity to cut wasteful federal spending, however, Republicans prevailed in keeping the mandate at 34,000.

Who benefits? The law practically guarantees a ready market for private prisons that supply “detention beds” under government contracts. At least half of the immigrants being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are sent to private profit-making prisons. Two companies have cornered the largest share of the detention business: the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The combined annual revenue of these two companies from the immigrant imprisonment industry is more than $3 billion. Bloomberg has published a graphic illustration of the growth in private immigrant prisons and where they are located. To help ensure the profitability of the business model, GEO and CCA have spent more than $16 million on lobbying since 2005. Republicans have backed the bed mandate. Attempts to eliminate the requirement have failed.

The Senate-approved immigration bill (S.744) would give ICE and judges greater discretion to release detainees who are not a risk to the community. At the same time, however, another provision of the bill would increase spending to prosecute unauthorized immigrants. Increased prosecution would ensure the continued supply of detainees for private prisons.

No doubt there will be a Republican uproar over the recently-announced executive action deferring the deportation of an estimated 5 million immigrants, mostly immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for five years or more and whose children are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. In part, the umbrage will be taken by those who wish to protect the market for immigrant detainees.

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