LOS ANGELES -- At dawn on July 19, nearly 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents burst into the home home of Carmen Bonilla, 44. The agents were searching for "Robert" an alleged drug dealer, but ended up terrifying Bonilla and her son Michael, 16, daughter Josefina, 23, daughter-in-law Leticia, 28, and two of her granddaughters.
According to Jessica Dominguez, the family's lawyer, and Jorge Mario Cabrera, spokesperson of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the family was subjected to "different levels of physical and verbal abuse," including screaming, "kicking, beating and aggression." Their treatment was documented last week by HuffPost LatinoVoices' Jorge Luis Macías.
What happened to the Bonillas has happened to thousands of immigrant families. Immigration authorities -- both local police and federal ICE agents -- have embarked on a program to seek out "criminal illegal aliens" and, whether they find them or not, have often rounded up entire families for deportation.
Even though the Bonilla family members do not have criminal records, they face removal proceedings before an immigration judge. The family was able to find legal representation and general public support, enabling their release from ICE custody, but undocumented immigrants who are less lucky are routinely sent to prisons and detention centers where ICE will process their paperwork and decide whether they may be released.
"If they have a criminal record, particularly a drug or security-related conviction, or a felony or violent crime, or crime of moral turpitude, they will likely have to remain in custody until their trial before the [immigration judge]," explained Aggie R. Hoffman, an immigration attorney.
The Department of Homeland Security pays between $50 to $200 per day per person to local, county and state prisons to house apprehended aliens. A few years ago, a series I wrote for La Opinión showed how prisons in general, and California's prisons in particular, benefit from the largesse of the federal government and vie for a piece of this lucrative business. At that time, I visited a detention center in Lancaster, Calif., run by the Sheriff of Los Angeles, where immigrants rounded up in raids were housed until their deportation or legal proceedings. The process is supposed to take just a few days, but some of the detainees rushed to tell me that they had been kept there for more than two years.
"This happens frequently because the courts are so backlogged; not enough judges to hear the cases of those being held", explained Hoffman.
But the incarceration trend is not limited to public prisons. Thanks to a concerted lobbying push from the corrections industry, growing numbers of undocumented immigrants could end up in private detention facilities.
Over the past three years, immigration politics has seen more restrictive legislation at the state level and the unprecedented enforcement of current laws by the Obama administration. Together, the laws and the stepped up enforcement have the potential to bring tens of thousands of individuals into for-profit jails.
The recent animated video "Immigrants for Sale" by the activist group Cuéntame illustrates some facts behind the connection between the ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration and the for-profit corrections industry.
The video follows the trail of money and political power behind this piece of the national immigration debate. Its creators say it's an attempt to uncover what lies behind the positions and ideologies in a discussion in which statements and accusations made at maximum volume have long replaced the open exchange of ideas and opinions.
"Cuéntame means 'tell me your story,'" said the group's founder, producer/director Axel Woolfolk Caballero. He said the organization works to make an impact through short videos, docu-series, media campaigns and "interviews from the street or in our studio or sent to us by others." Cuéntame is part of the Brave New Foundation, which focuses on social justice media.
The video states that behind the words and laws, there is an alliance of businesses and politicians called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Some of ALEC's members are both the most ardent proponents of anti-immigration laws and representatives of the industries that will benefit directly from having more people behind bars. At least 12 companies involved in the corrections industry are members of the alliance.
ALEC was created in 1978 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. According to the group's mission statement, it is "a non-profit, private organization dedicated to principles of free markets, limited government, federalism (the proper balance of federal and state government), and individual liberty." ALEC achieves these aims through a exchange of ideas between state politicians and business leaders, facilitating the legislative process around certain causes dear to the latter. Through one of ALEC’s eight committees, lawyers and business experts actually write laws that are later enacted almost verbatim.
Each year, ALEC produces approximately 1000 legislative proposals, 20 percent of which eventually become laws, according to the group. The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch reports: "98% of ALEC's funding comes from corporations like Exxon Mobil, corporate 'foundations' like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, or trade associations like the pharmaceutical industry's PhRMA."
Cuéntame focuses on ALEC members' use of political pressure to achieve more restrictive immigration laws, which require longer detentions and a larger number of detainees.
Some of ALEC's model bills include the "three Strikes" law, changes in mandatory minimum sentences and "truth-in-sentencing," which would further eliminate the possibility of parole for many inmates.
Yet ALEC rejects the idea that it promotes increased construction of private prisons. In a statement last October, the group said, "ALEC’s position on prison overcrowding ... is to reduce the non-violent prison population in order to save taxpayer costs."
One of the best known legislative members of ALEC is State Senator Russell Pearce, a proponent of Arizona's very restrictive immigration law, SB 1070. According to an investigation by NPR, Pearce took his version of the legislation to an ALEC meeting, where it was then revised and adapted by members of the corrections industry, obtaining their unqualified support.
SB 1070 has been imitated by similar laws -- some even stricter and more encompassing -- in at least five other states. These include HB 56 in Alabama, Utah's Compact / HB 497, Indiana's SB 590, Georgia's HB 87 and South Carolina's S 20.
ALEC is now working on a series of laws concerning prisons, including The Housing Out-of-State Prisoners in a Private Prison Act; The Prison Industries Act; The Inmate Labor Disclosure Act; A Resolution on Prison Expenditures; a Model State Bill Prohibiting Wireless Handsets in Prisons; the Targeted Contracting for Certain Correctional Facilities and Services Act; and the Prevention of Illegal Payments to Inmates Incentives Act, details of which are restricted to ALEC members only.
One of ALEC's members is Corrections Corporation of America, the country's largest for-profit prison company, founded in 1983. CCA designs, builds, manages and operates correctional facilities and detention centers on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the United States Marshal Service in nearly half of all states, according to the company's website.
According to Cuéntame, CCA houses about 60 percent of the almost 100,000 -- up from 14,000 in 2006 -- immigrant detainees at any given time.
In 2008, the New Yorker published an expose drawing attention businesses involved in the imprisonment of families with children in the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, a CCA facility.
CCA, together with other prison companies GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation, owns more than 200 private prisons with 150,000 beds and makes an annual profit of $5 billion, Cuéntame found.
"Private prisons profit like a hotel," the video states. "The more occupants they can throw in, the more money comes out."