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Private Prisons Profit From Immigration Crackdown, Federal And Local Law Enforcement Partnerships

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PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. -- On a flat and desolate stretch of Interstate 10 some 50 miles south of Phoenix, a sheriff's deputy pulls over a green Chevy Tahoe speeding westbound and carrying three young Hispanic men.

The man behind the wheel produces no driver's license or registration. The deputy notices $1,000 in cash stuffed in the doorframe -- payment, he presumes, for completed passage from Mexico. He radios the sheriff's immigration enforcement team, summoning agents from the U.S. Border Patrol. Soon, the three men are ushered into the back of a white van with a federal seal.

This routine traffic stop represents the front end of an increasingly lucrative commercial enterprise: the business of incarcerating immigrant detainees, the fastest-growing segment of the American prison population. The three men loaded into the van offer fresh profit opportunities for the nation's swiftly expanding private prison industry, which has in recent years captured the bulk of this commerce through federal contracts. By filling its cells with undocumented immigrants caught in the web of increased border security, the industry has seen its revenues swell at taxpayer expense.

The convergence of the people on the Interstate on this recent afternoon, as well as the profits that flow from imprisoning immigrants, are in part the result of concerted efforts by the private prison industry to tilt immigration detention policies in its favor, a Huffington Post investigation has shown.

In Washington, the industry's lobbyists have influenced policy to secure growing numbers of federal inmates in its facilities, while encouraging Congress to increase funding for detention bedspace. Here in this southern Arizona community, private prison companies share the spoils of their business with the local government, effectively giving area law enforcement an incentive to apprehend as many undocumented immigrants as they can.

This confluence of forces has contributed to a doubling of the ranks of immigrant detainees, to about 400,000 a year. Nearly half are now held in private prisons, up from one-fourth a decade ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, Inc., have more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005, according to securities filings.

CCA spokesman Mike Machak acknowledges that immigrant detention "has been an important part of our business since our inception," but adds that the company does not attempt to influence detention policy through its lobbying. He says the company is proud of its work and has built its reputation through "providing quality services at cost savings to our government partner."

"CCA has always worked to educate decision makers on the merits and benefits of public-private partnerships to meet their expressed need for detention space and services," Machak says. "It is CCA's longstanding policy not to draft, lobby for or in any way promote crime, sentencing or detention legislation."

GEO Group declined to comment for this report.

Americans have grown accustomed to the crackdown on illegal immigration as part of the fabric of contemporary political debate, one in which Arizona's strict enforcement posture frequently captures attention. The private prison industry has exploited the crackdown as something else: a lucrative business model.

"The policy in this country has changed from catch and release to more detention," CCA's former board chairman, William Andrews, told investors in 2006, according to the transcript of an upbeat earnings call. "That means we'll be incarcerating more illegal aliens."

The success of the industry in growing revenues through undocumented immigrant detention has in part resulted from two distinct campaigns -- one in Washington, and the other in local communities such as this one, where prisoners are housed. Rural towns and counties have eagerly embraced the arrival of immigrant prisoners for the attendant economic benefits, including tax revenues and jobs.

"For small towns that are economically depressed, this is attractive," says Travis Pratt, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University who has studied the private prison industry. "It's an influx of public money immediately. There doesn't need to be a delay."

In Pinal County, a vast stretch of Arizona ranchlands and stunning desert scenery between Phoenix and Tucson, towns compete with one another to attract new prisons. Pinal has become the nerve center of immigrant detention in Arizona, with five separate facilities holding up to 3,000 detainees on a given day. CCA is the county's largest private employer.

White prison buses with caged windows appear on cactus-lined local highways more frequently than school buses. The growing concentration of prisoners has led some to rename this "Penal County."

The expanding prison populations have allowed small towns to carry budget surpluses in a state that has otherwise been pummeled by the recession. Prison communities have largely avoided the dire economic straits suffered by Arizona communities in every direction, where the housing bust and subsequent foreclosure crisis have ravaged local government coffers.

In the town of Florence -- which has a prison population of more than 17,000, plus 7,800 residents who are not behind bars -- more than 40 percent of the local government's general fund comes from state revenues directly related to housing inmates, according to Jess Knudson, the deputy town manager. That has allowed the local government to offer highly popular services for seniors and build skate parks, dog parks and little league fields throughout town.

"We're one of the few towns in Arizona that has been able to stay in the black with this recession," Knudson says.

The prison industry's expansion in southern Arizona has been propelled in part by a county sheriff, Paul Babeu, who has gained a national reputation for his aggressive stance on illegal immigration, making Pinal County one of the state's top jurisdictions for undocumented immigrant apprehensions and deportations.

CCA pays the county government based on the number of inmates in one of its prisons in Pinal, as part of an agreement to operate in the county. Last year that amounted to roughly $1.4 million, according to county budget documents. The payments increase as more beds are filled -- under the agreement, the county receives two dollars per day for each inmate held in the facility. The money in part funds the county sheriff's office, whose enforcement actions have influence over the size of the prisoner population: Under an agreement with the federal government, the office acts as an enforcement agent on immigration law, arresting violators and referring them to federal authorities, who make the ultimate decision on detention.

Babeu, who declined repeated requests for comment, heads that office. According to campaign finance records, he has received political contributions from CCA executives and lobbyists.

The sheriff's spokesman, Elias Johnson, says the department enforces immigration law on the merits, and has no financial incentive to fill CCA's facilities. He notes that CCA's contracts to operate local prisons are with the county, and not with the sheriff's office. He adds that immigrant detainees held within local facilities are brought in from several states, meaning that those apprehended locally make up only a small percentage of the total beds filled.

"You're talking about maybe a 2 percent impact on our overall inmate population," Johnson says.

Machak, the CCA spokesman, points out that final decisions on detention are made by the federal government, not local law enforcement.

But some experts see no less than an immigration-industrial complex gaining force: Companies dependent upon continued growth in the numbers of undocumented immigrants detained have exerted themselves in the nation's capital and in small, rural communities to create incentives that reinforce that growth.

"The companies seized this opportunity to fill up their empty prisons, and they've used lobbyists to ensure that it keeps getting pushed in that direction," says Tanya Golash-Boza, a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas who has followed the growth of U.S. immigration enforcement and detention. "You can certainly say that if we stopped the mandatory detention of immigrants, CCA and GEO Group and these other companies would have a major financial crisis."

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS AS GROWTH ENGINE

The industry's modern-day boom is the product of strategic decisions made a decade ago, when growth was far from assured.

In the economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11, state governments -- the biggest customers for private prison beds -- were confronting budget deficits, prompting a pullback on prison expansion plans. The federal Bureau of Prisons, which had increasingly outsourced inmates to private contractors during the Clinton administration, was also in the midst of a slowdown on new construction projects. Stock prices for CCA and GEO Group, the two major publicly traded industry players, were at all-time lows.

But in Washington, the industry spotted a potential growth opportunity in the form of a sweeping reorganization of the federal government. As part of the restructuring, the Bush administration shifted responsibility for enforcing immigration law from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an arm of the Justice Department, to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

The new agency would "control our borders and prevent terrorists and explosives from entering our country," President George W. Bush declared in 2002.

Private prison executives recognized a fertile new market. Stepped-up enforcement on the border would yield larger numbers of undocumented immigrants bound for detention. Their companies positioned themselves to secure federal contracts to hold those immigrants in their own for-profit facilities.

"It's clear that since September 11th there's a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and in the U.S.," declared Steve Logan, the chief executive of Cornell Companies Inc., a prison corporation now owned by GEO Group. He spoke shortly after the terrorist attacks, according to the transcript of a quarterly earnings call. "What we are seeing is an increased scrutiny of tightening up the borders. Some of that means that people don't get through, but the other side of that is more people are going to get caught. So I would say that's positive."

As the Bush administration and Congress signaled a tougher stance on immigration policy, both CCA and GEO Group ramped up federal lobbying efforts aimed at influencing government spending on detention beds.

Before the creation of DHS, CCA rarely spent more than $500,000 a year lobbying the federal government, according to a review of lobbying disclosure forms over the last decade. Since 2003, CCA has never spent less than $1.8 million each year, while unleashing a total of more than $23 million in lobbying over the course of the decade. In 2005 alone, CCA spent a record $4 million lobbying the federal government, more than Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo combined. GEO Group has spent $3 million in the last 10 years.

The companies' efforts have been directed primarily at influencing decisions by DHS and Congress, which approves final funding for immigration enforcement and detention budgets.

Over the years, CCA has hired a number of former federal insiders to meet with policymakers and handle its contracts. Kim Porter, a former top detention and deportation officer at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is a senior director at the company who manages immigration contracts.

Machak, the CCA spokesman, says the company has been pursuing the same essential business for decades, while delivering value to taxpayers.

"The formation of the Department of Homeland Security in response to 9/11 did not change our practices in any way," he says. According to Machak, the recent increases in lobbying are due to the "heightened sophistication of the services we provide, which ultimately result in taxpayer savings and increased quality."

Campaign contributions from both CCA and GEO Group have more than doubled over the past decade, according to a review of campaign finance reports. More than a third of the money CCA has given to congressional candidates over that period has gone to members of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate -- the politicians who control the federal purse strings.

By 2006, executives at both CCA and GEO Group were boasting of substantially improved prospects.

"We've never seen the wind at our back like it is today," CCA's then-chief executive John Ferguson said in a 2006 conference call, according to a transcript. "We couldn't be more bullish."

GEO Group chief executive George Zoley, who helped raise more than $100,000 for George W. Bush's 2004 campaign as a bundler, foresaw continued growth of the new market for detainees, partly because the immigration crackdown had been elevated to an issue of livelihood in the national political conversation.

"U.S. border security and the detention beds necessary to detain illegal aliens will increasingly be seen as a national imperative to protect U.S. workers and their jobs," Zoley told financial analysts during a conference call in 2009.

The lobbying efforts have been maintained under the Obama administration, though not at the same level as during the Bush administration, when the detention system grew fastest. Funding for new beds has also continued to increase under Obama, and deportations in recent years have reached record numbers, angering immigration reform advocates.

Responding to questions about private prison lobbying, a spokeswoman for ICE, Gillian Christensen, says the agency "routinely evaluates the agency’s detention space needs and awards contracts based on fluctuating detainee populations around the country and the progress of the agency’s overarching detention reform efforts."

Those efforts include consolidating detention centers in "strategic locations" closer to consulates and pro-bono legal services, she says. As part of that consolidation, ICE is considering two contracts with municipalities near Miami and Chicago -- contracts involving CCA -- to run new detention centers.

The administration has pledged to focus detention and deportation resources on those with criminal records. During the last two years, the percentage of criminal deportations has increased along with the total, from 48 percent to 54 percent of the nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants who were deported, according to DHS statistics. But critics complain that stepped-up enforcement has also led to increased apprehensions of "low-priority" undocumented immigrants -- those without criminal records.

Christensen says the agency has focused on "smart and effective immigration enforcement which focuses the agency’s limited resources on our enforcement priorities, which include convicted criminal aliens, immigration fugitives, recent border crossers and those who re-enter the country illegally after being removed by ICE or otherwise abuse the nation’s immigration system."

From 2005 until 2012, the budget for ICE detention operations more than doubled, soaring from $864 million to more than $2 billion in 2012, according to the agency's budget. So did the capacity of the detention system, which jumped from 18,000 beds in 2003 to 34,000 by last year.

Along the way, cash flowing to private corporations has surged. CCA last year took in $208 million in revenues from ICE contracts, compared to $95 million in 2005, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. GEO Group took in $216 million in revenues from ICE contracts, compared to $33.6 million in 2005.

"It's the powerful confluence of politics and moneyed interests," says Judith Greene, the director of Justice Strategies, an advocacy group that has followed the private prison industry since its inception in the 1980s. "You had large, moneyed organizations who were well-connected politically with the right people to see that a decent share of this cash ended up in their pockets."

PARTNERSHIP IN THE DESERT

Even as policymakers in Washington expanded the ranks of immigrant detainees through intensified border enforcement, the private prison industry required another element to realize the potential profits: It needed a place to house the prisoners.

Pinal County beckoned as a ready business partner.

Local residents had long grown comfortable with prisons in their midst. For generations, razor wire, concrete cells and floodlights have dominated this patch of barren ranchlands and irrigated cotton fields framed by the jagged outlines of the Superstition Mountains.

More than a century ago, Arizona's territorial government faced grave troubles at its only prison, a dangerous and overcrowded facility in Yuma that had become one of the most notorious jails in the Old West. Seeking a clean start, the government moved the prisoners 200 miles northeast to Florence, closer to the growing capital of Phoenix.

Inmate laborers built the prison in blistering heat, living in makeshift desert camps before eventually moving inside cells they crafted with their own hands.

Florence had been a trading post serving nearby silver-mining operations. Much like other frontier towns, its fortunes were volatile. The prison brought stability, delivering a reliable stream of state government jobs.

"Other boomtowns would die when the ore ran out," says Chris Reid, a researcher at the Pinal County Historical Museum in Florence, which features displays of nooses and a gas chamber execution chair used on death row. "The ore did run out, but the prison and the county courthouse kept our town from dying. We've been building prisons ever since."

Until the early 1970s, the prison at Florence remained Arizona's only state correctional facility. With no source of growth, the town stagnated. By the early 1980s, its finances were in a shambles. A bad economy and high interest rates left Florence with few options for repairing roads laden with potholes and aging emergency response equipment.

Tom Rankin, then the town's police chief and now its incoming mayor, recalls operating the entire department on a shoestring budget of $90,000 a year.

"I had 13 cars and three motorcycles," Rankin says. "Three of the cars ran."

In 1981, Rankin read a newspaper article about a Massachusetts town that annexed a prison to boost revenues. After doing some research, Rankin and the town council realized that they could increase Florence's official population by expanding the town's boundaries to include the prison, which had previously been in an unincorporated area. The additional headcount brought the town a greater share of state tax revenues, alleviating its financial crunch.

cca florence
Prisons have become a central part of the economy in Florence and Pinal County, Ariz.

So began a sustained expansion of prisons in Florence and its surrounding area. When CCA came to Pinal County in the mid-1990s with a proposal to house more than 1,000 federal prisoners, Florence welcomed the venture with little hesitation.

The arrival of the private prison industry served as an antidote to worries about the area's economic future. Arizona's state prison population could only grow so fast. Moreover, the Arizona Department of Corrections was building new prisons in other parts of the state. But private prisons brought contracts with federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshals Service, or more distant states like Alaska and Hawaii, allowing for a new influx of "closed quarters" residents. In recent years, some of the steadiest inmate growth has come from ICE.

In Florence today, seven separate prisons and jails are compressed into a span of two miles along the town's main drag. Collectively, they house county inmates, state inmates, federal inmates, tribal inmates, sex offenders, Vermont prisoners and, increasingly, undocumented immigrants. CCA has two prisons in Florence and four more in the nearby city of Eloy.

private prisons immigration
Prisons fan out on the horizon as drivers enter Florence, Ariz.

During shift changes in the mornings and afternoons, the roadways in Florence fill with hundreds of correctional officers streaming in and out. Driving into town on lonely highways at night, the tall orange lights flanking the perimeter gates can be seen more than a dozen miles away, obscuring views of the stars.

In the historic adobe brick neighborhoods within a stone's throw of the barbed wire, backyard clotheslines are draped with uniforms worn by correctional officers: white for CCA, khaki for the state facilities. A "prison outlet" store along the highway sells T-shirts featuring wry local humor, such as "Florence Prison -- A Gated Community."

For a number of local governments here in Arizona, boosting the prison population has emerged as a primary economic development strategy, one that has allowed towns of fewer than 10,000 people to maintain full-service police departments, little league ballfields and -- in the case of Florence -- a town fitness center that charges members less than $20 a month.

prison laborers
Arizona Department of Corrections inmates work fields near the prison complex in Florence, Ariz.

The prison population brought Florence an estimated $5.2 million in additional state revenues last year, amounting to nearly $300 per inmate, according to local government estimates.

The neighboring city of Eloy -- home to four sprawling CCA prisons -- contains one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country. Revenues from construction fees on new prisons have endowed Eloy with nearly $9 million in reserves -- roughly the same size as the budget for the city's general fund, according to Eloy's financial statements. Extra money has gone toward much-needed upgrades to the city's water lines, the purchase of new police cars and the construction of a new town playground.

"Let me put it in perspective for you," says Rick Miller, the city of Eloy's community development director. "If CCA were to close today, that would represent about 20 percent of our operating budget."

Eloy's prisons were constructed in part to capture overflow from the facilities in neighboring Florence. CCA's Eloy Detention Center, one of the largest immigrant detention facilities in the nation, has been a focal point of criticism for human rights advocates. Since 2003, ten detainees have died in custody at the Eloy Detention Center, the most of all facilities owned or contracted by ICE.

But now, both communities are girding for expansion. Officials in Florence have already annexed the parcel of land adjacent to CCA's two prisons there. In Eloy, the city approved a permit earlier this year for the company to either expand one of its four existing prisons or build another one.

The significance of CCA in the local economy has translated into influence in local and state government affairs -- power the company has wielded to protect its business interests.

In part, this is a function of having allies in prominent positions. Dennis DeConcini, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona, sits on CCA's board of directors. Several CCA lobbyists in Phoenix have worked or consulted for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican.

But mostly, CCA's clout in state and local politics reflects the fact that it signs so many paychecks.

Four years ago, after two prisoners escaped from a CCA facility in Florence, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano -- a Democrat who is now Homeland Security secretary -- sought to compel the company and other private prison operators to disclose more information about the types of prisoners they house. CCA complained.

"If you change the rules of the game midstream, we are going to resist it because we invested based on the current rules," Tony Grande, a CCA senior vice president, told The Arizona Republic.

Napolitano's measure disappeared.

More than a decade ago, Pete Rios, a former state legislator who now sits on Pinal County's board of supervisors, introduced a bill that would have prohibited some out-of-state violent offenders from being housed in private prisons in Arizona.

Soon after, local residents approached him at meetings and flooded his office with calls, warning him that he was threatening their jobs.

He dropped the proposal.

"I had to do some soul-searching and ask, 'Why am I doing what I'm doing?'" Rios recalls. "I had to think of the health and welfare of all my constituents."

THE SHERIFF IN TOWN

As is the case in any enterprise, the profits in the private prison business depend upon seeing a steady flow of customers. In Pinal County, one man plays a key role in ensuring local prisons do not suffer from a lack of demand for their services: Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Bald, trim and inclined to wear short-sleeved shirts that reveal the tattoos on his muscular arms, Babeu, 43, is the youngest sheriff in Arizona. He is also among the state's most prominent public officials, owing to his vocal pronouncements on the need to patrol the Mexican border and hunt down people who cross it illegally. He is prone to issuing rousing defenses of his state's aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration and excoriating what he calls federal inaction, advancing his cause with regular television appearances on Fox News Channel.

paul babeu
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu examines one of the seized weapons after a news conference last fall, as a variety of law enforcement agencies announced a bust on a major drug smuggling ring in Arizona.

"We asked the federal government for help," Babeu said last year in a speech at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. The government "sent teams of lawyers to sue us for enforcing the law. This is how twisted the situation is."

In the lobby of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office in Florence, a flatscreen television beams HD-quality footage of deputies making raids on suspected immigrant drug houses in rural parts of the county. Another scene shows a team of sheriff's deputies preparing to intercept suspected drug smugglers on a rocky outcropping in the western part of the county. Babeu stands on a ledge above them, wearing a flak jacket, explaining the mission.

Far from a mere showman, Babeu has frequently deployed the deputies under his command in pursuit of undocumented immigrants. He has sent special task forces deep into the desert to track undocumented immigrants carrying loads of marijuana through Pinal County, which he frequently calls "the number one pass-through county for drug- and human-smuggling in America."

His deputies patrol area highways at night looking for "layup" spots -- rendezvous points where coyotes shuttling immigrants pick up passengers who have been on foot.

Under Babeu's tenure, Pinal County has taken on responsibility to enforce federal immigration laws within its jurisdiction. The county first signed such an agreement with ICE in 2008, and Babeu signed an updated version when he took over as sheriff in 2009. Since then, the number of undocumented immigrant deportations from Pinal County has shot up from 33 in 2008 to 199 in 2009, and has remained above 120 every year since, according to ICE data. Those numbers do not include undocumented immigrants who were apprehended by Pinal County sheriff's deputies and then referred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Department of Homeland Security data shows that Pinal County is among the top counties in the state in terms of the numbers of undocumented immigrants arrested and brought to local jail -- often the first step en route to federal detention, a path that increasingly leads to private prisons.

Only a quarter of those arrested and identified as undocumented in Pinal County jails last year were apprehended for serious crimes, including drug possession charges and more violent crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery or homicide, according to ICE statistics. The rest were booked for minor offenses.

Babeu's priorities have drawn critics who have accused him of grandstanding on immigration enforcement at the expense of public safety. Current and former sheriff's deputies complain that the focus on patrolling uninhabited desert terrain has taken manpower away from routine crime-fighting measures in places where people actually live.

"They're putting 10 or 20 people out there with no results, and yet we're leaving six people in an area of 80,000 people," says a former deputy, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still works in law enforcement. "We're taking from the citizens."

But Babeu's deployment decisions dovetail with the financial interests of his department: As part of the agreement that first brought CCA to Pinal County, the county gets a share of the profits from housing prisoners in one of the company's detention centers in Florence. For each inmate held in the facility, the county receives two dollars per day, which go into the general fund. The sheriff's office gets the bulk of its budget from the fund.

The arrangement brought the county $1.4 million last year, and has ensured between $700,000 and $1.5 million annually for the last three years, according to county budget figures.

In addition, the county has a separate detention agreement with ICE through which it dedicates a portion of the county jail to the detention of undocumented immigrants. According to the county, that contract was worth about $11 million last year, though the county must cover the costs of operating the jail.

Ultimately, the federal government decides how and where immigrants are detained. Some of those apprehended in Arizona can end up incarcerated in other parts of the country, depending on how full the state's detention centers are. Outside of Pinal County, the next closest federal detention center is in El Centro, Calif., nearly 300 miles to the west.

Machak, the CCA spokesman, pointed out that the payments to the county are also based on other inmate populations in the jail, such as U.S. Marshals Service detainees.

Babeu's spokesman acknowledges that that the sheriff's department is financed via the county's general fund, which holds the proceeds of the contracts with CCA and the federal immigration enforcement agency. But he emphasized that those funds are shared with the rest of the county government.

"The same money we get from the county also goes to roads, goes to courts, goes to fleets," says Johnson, the spokesman. "It goes to a number of other things."

According to a review of campaign finance records, Babeu has received more than $4,000 in combined campaign donations from CCA executives in Tennessee and company lobbyists in Phoenix -- funds dedicated to his race for sheriff in 2008 and an aborted Congressional campaign this year.

Johnson agrees to do a tour of the county hotspots for undocumented immigrants and drug smuggling.

He drives east along Interstate 10, pointing to treeless brown mountains in the distance and explaining how the natural geographic barriers funnel human traffic through Pinal County.

"We're the pass-through," he says. "The drugs and the people are all on their way to Phoenix."

Johnson spots the traffic stop with the three young Hispanic men, initially apprehended by the sheriff's deputy. Border Patrol agents and Pinal County sheriff's deputies confer under flashing lights on the side of the highway. Law enforcement vehicles line the shoulder. Johnson makes a quick U-turn and drives up to the scene. The apprehended men are all young, 17 or 18 years old, according to the deputies.

roadside stop
Pinal County Sheriff's Office deputies confer after the apprehension of suspected undocumented immigrants driving on Interstate 10.

Officers responding to the call find the $1,000 in cash, but are not sure if they will be able to book the driver on a human smuggling charge. Some of the men have clearly been walking for miles before getting in the car: Their shoes are in tatters.

Driving away from the scene, Johnson shrugs off the case as typical.

"It happens every day," he says. "It's just a matter of whether we catch them or not. And when it happens every day, you know you're not catching everybody who gets through."

In the estimation of some observers, these sorts of everyday enforcement actions have little bearing on the realities of illegal immigration, but a good deal of influence on the industry that now depends on the status quo for its succor.

Roberto Reveles, a Pinal County immigration reform advocate, has watched the detention system grow right alongside the heated rhetoric around immigration policy in his home state. The current stalemate over immigration reform has provided a perfect climate for businesses and politicians to thrive -- "a reason for them to have a broken-down immigration system," he says.

"You build a strong image of fear of these Mexican immigrants, which creates a moral justification for imprisoning them, and at the same time brings in lots of money," Reveles says. "The politicians are not motivated to fix the immigration system. On the contrary, they're benefiting from it politically and economically."

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