POLITICS
08/29/2016 02:48 pm ET

Obama Administration Considers Ending For-Profit Immigrant Detention

The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing the policy after the landmark decision to phase out privatized federal prisons.

Private prison contractors may lose the ability to run immigrant detention centers as for-profit businesses.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is ordering a review of the agency’s policy of using private contractors to run immigrant detention centers, according to a statement issued Monday.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. On Aug. 29, 2016, he ordered a
Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. On Aug. 29, 2016, he ordered a review of whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should continue allowing private companies to run immigrant detention centers as for-profit businesses. 

The news follows last month’s landmark decision by the Department of Justice to phase out the privatization of federal prisons, after a scathing report by the DOJ’s inspector general said the private facilities were more dangerous than those run by the Bureau of Prisons and in need of closer monitoring.

Reform advocates widely applauded the DOJ’s landmark decision, but immigrant rights groups questioned why the same logic shouldn’t apply to the civil immigrant detention system, which keeps tens of thousands of people locked up every night. The same two companies, the Corrections Corp of America and the GEO Group, handle the lion’s share of federal contracting for both privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers.

Johnson appears to have noted the criticism. He asked the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which is chaired by Judge William Webster, to review its policies for using private contractors to run immigrant detention centers and submit a report by Nov. 30.

“Specifically, I have asked that Judge Webster establish a Subcommittee of the Council to review our current policy and practices concerning the use of private immigration detention and evaluate whether this practice should be eliminated,” Johnson wrote in Monday’s statement.

Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a detention center for mig
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a detention center for migrant families run for profit by the GEO Group. 

GEO Group, the country’s second-largest private prison contractor, said in a statement that it “welcomed” the review, adding that the detention centers under its management had met national standards in previous audits.

“We are confident that this independent review will show that GEO has provided needed, cost-effective services that have resulted in significantly improved safety outcomes for the men and women in ICE’s care and custody,” GEO Group CEO George Zoley said in the statement.

The company’s shareholders weren’t so sure. The price of GEO Group’s shares declined nearly 5 percent after the news, extending a precipitous decline since the Aug. 18 DOJ announcement that has wiped away more than a third of the company’s value. Shares for the Corrections Corp of America, the country’s largest private prison contractor, plunged nearly 8 percent.

“We’ve worked with the federal government to provide solutions to pressing immigration challenges for more than 30 years, and we welcome this review of our long-standing relationship,” CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns wrote in a statement. “We’re proud of the quality and value of the services we provide and look forward to sharing that information with Judge Webster and his team.”

Immigrants’ rights activists, who have long viewed private prison companies as a key driver of growth for the immigrant detention system over the last two decades, cheered the decision.

“It’s past time that DHS end the practice of detaining immigrants, and this review should move it in that direction,” Jacinta Gonález, a field director with the grassroots Latinx group Mijente, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “Its review of privately-run facilities should start at the Eloy detention center [in Arizona] where there are open cases of sexual assault, a history of suspicious deaths, and 200 detainees recently staged a hunger strike to protest treatment in the facility.”

ICE relies on private companies to handle most of its detention operations. Nearly two-thirds of immigrant detention beds are privatized, according to report last year by Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership. By comparison, 12 percent of Bureau of Prisons facilities are run as businesses.

“Based on the stories that have come out of for-profit detention centers for years, including hunger strikes and protests by detained migrants, there is every reason to believe that ICE-contracted private prisons have many of the same problems that the DOJ uncovered this month,” Grassroots Leadership Director Bob Libal wrote in an email.

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