The private prison industry’s growing role in immigrant detention is due in part to Congress' requiring the federal government to maintain some 34,000 detention beds, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report, drafted by Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, calls on Congress to eliminate the immigrant detention quota from its 2016 appropriations request.
The detention bed mandate was first inserted into the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010. Today, private companies control about 62 percent of the immigrant detention beds used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the report. That's up from 49 percent in 2009. The rest of the beds are operated by the federal government. Of the 10 largest immigrant detention centers in the country, nine are operated by private companies.
“We simply detain too many people, and the federal mandate certainly drives a lot of that,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Wednesday on a call with reporters organized by Grassroots Leadership. “Frankly, I think if you eliminate the bed mandate, that’s the first step toward eliminating privatization, because that’s a huge thing that’s driving their profits.”
The two largest private prison companies involved in detention -- Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group -- have lobbied Congress in order to push up the number of required immigrant detention beds, according to the study. CCA and the GEO Group together took in nearly half a billion dollars from immigrant detention services in 2014 alone, according to Grassroots.
CCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, denied that the company plays a role in promoting immigrant detention.
"As a matter of long-standing policy, GEO's governmental advocacy focuses on promoting the benefits of public-private partnerships and does not encompass immigration policies, which are set exclusively by the federal government," Paez told The Huffington Post in an email.
But the Grassroots report, citing lobbying disclosure forms, says that both companies have lobbied Congress on immigration issues. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA directly lobbied members of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which set the bed quota, according to the report. Both CCA and the GEO Group have acknowledged in filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission that immigration reform or other efforts to liberalize the immigrant detention system would undermine the companies' business, the report says.
Both companies received contracts to operate family detention centers in Texas following the child migrant crisis last year. CCA runs the newly constructed, 2,400-bed family detention center at Dilley, while the GEO Group operates a 530-bed family detention center in Karnes City.
Marichuy Leal, a transgender woman who was released from a CCA-run detention facility in Eloy, Arizona, this year, described her detention as a traumatic experience.
“I got tortured in Mexico,” Leal said on Wednesday's call. She said she came to the United States seeking asylum, “but my torture kept going in the detention center. There’s no safety in the detention center where I got detained. I was abused by my cellmate, abused by the security guards.”
Bethany Carson, a co-author of the study who spoke on the call, said the detention bed quota is “inhumane” and “unnecessary.” The Grassroots report urges policymakers to reduce the number of required detention beds through “community-based” alternatives to detention. The report does not describe those alternatives in detail, but Grassroots has in the past endorsed programs in which immigration authorities partner with non-governmental organizations to ensure that released migrants comply with court proceedings and find access to community services.
“The only beneficiaries from the detention quota are for-profit corporations that benefit from human pain,” Carson told reporters.
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