09/17/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

The Brutal Spending of the Border Surge: Can the House Do Better?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has refused to take the Gang of 8 legislation into the House of Representatives. Although he has most likely done this to save his own career, this bill is one which many in the immigrant community are torn over: while it will offer relief to many who have been waiting and delaying their own American Dream for decades, it will also crack down on many others within the same community. Besides this, the Corker-Hoeven amendment gives so much to private contractors that it will bleed American coffers, worsen human rights abuses and push those who are desperate enough to try to cross into the United States into even more dangerous paths. While the holdup in the House may be for John Boehner's own personal political calculus, it affords us the opportunity to ask: can the House do better?

When the Gang of 8 bill was first written, it was a compromise between the Senate, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, which also had input from immigrant groups, student groups, the Immigrations and Custom Enforcement union and nearly every other relevant group. This compromise leaned far to the right of what immigrant rights advocates wanted, and was dragged even further right as it passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and then went to the floor of the Senate.

Those on the left made compromise after compromise to please (or at least quiet) a far right fringe absolutely set against immigration reform (i.e. Steve King [R-IA]), while preventing leftward compromises like Sen. Leahy (D-VT)'s amendment adding marriage equality to the bill. In the end, the Corker-Hoeven amendment was the final insult: a last-minute $40 billion "border surge" designed to be so over the top no Republican could possibly oppose the bill on the grounds of spending too little on border security; the very author of the bill, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), said it was "almost overkill" before releasing it. Since the "border surge" has failed to get the Gang of 8 bill taken up in the House, Senator McCain (R-AZ), perhaps the most respected voice on immigration in the U.S. Senate, said "we don't need 20,000 more border patrol agents," a key feature of the amendment.

When the bill was released, it called specifically for 15 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters (over $17 million each). For those who are unfamiliar, a Black Hawk helicopter is one of the most advanced, expensive helicopters made. The Corker-Hoeven amendment did not call for "surveillance" or "helicopters," rather, it called for this specific model, made by a specific company. This is one of many throwbacks to the no-bid Halliburton contracts Dick Cheney was so criticized for in the last administration.

The helicopters, however, are just the tip of a large iceberg. Biometric information like fingerprinting may help with security at some points, however, not at the Homeland Security Department, where officials say the technology would do little. Thanks to lobbying from security contractors, the Corker-Hoeven amendment contains a computerized biometric exit system which will not actually help stem undocumented immigration, however, could cost more than $7 billion.

General Atomics, which spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress last year, signed a $128 million sole-source contract with the government for its Predator drones, which could turn into a $252 million contract if the money is approved by Congress. Immigrants captured by Predators will often be taken to an immigrant detention center, usually owned by either of the two prison corporation giants, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or the GEO Group, both known for severe human rights abuses.

The CCA, located in Corker's own state of Tennessee, donated over $50,000 to Corker before he wrote the Corker-Hoeven amendment. So far, the CCA, GEO Group and Management and Training Corp. have spent over $45 million on campaign contributions and lobbying. For an example of how this breaks down, the GEO Group donated $80,000 to Charles Crist, the former Republican Governor of Florida, and $29,300 to Marco Rubio (R-FL) in 2010 alone.

The corporate prison money is certainly not one-sided, however, as Chuck Schumer (D-NY) received $64,000 from the prison lobby Akin Gump et al, Bill Richardson (D-NM) received $43,700 from the GEO Group and Patty Murray (D-Wash) received $21,600 from Akin and $74,700 from McBee Strategic Consulting. This is, of course, not including secret donations from political money-laundering groups like SuperPACs which private contractors and lobbyists are familiar with.

This flood of lobbying and campaign finance is largely in response to the fact that private prison contracts with the United States have swelled to over $5.1 billion, creating a multi-billion dollar industry on human misery whose fiduciary obligation it is to drain the state of as much money as possible. The undocumented prison population is quite profitable for them since they cannot vote or call on due process protections of citizenship, so are often forgotten by all but their family when they are locked up.

The immigrants in the militarized zones of our border, as well as the undocumented prison population, are incredibly vulnerable to abuses. Amnesty International's report, "Jailed without Justice," as well as my earlier article "Torture, Immigration Detention and the DREAM 9," expose just a few of the rampant human rights abuses and lack of due process that is commonplace in immigrant detention.

Looking to the situation of human rights on the border, it is no better: 16-year-old Jose Antonio Rodriguez was recently killed after being shot at a total of 14 times, hit with several bullets, in retaliation for throwing rocks at border agents. Also recently, evidence has surfaced showing Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, an undocumented father of 5, being tazed to death in front of dozens of border patrol agents while he desperately begged for either help or mercy. This has raised protests in Mexico of brutality on the border, received the condemnation of the United Nations and harmed our international reputation in general.

Remember, none of this happens in a vacuum: the federal government is still struggling with budget cutbacks, furloughs and reduced services stemming from sequestration. This money poured out for something unnecessary to anyone other than Republican politicians who need to save face in front of primary voters comes from somewhere important, like meals for impoverished seniors. So to review: the government, to stop a dwindling number of Mexicans who actually want to come to the United States, has the money for enough top-of-the-line flying killer surveillance robots to make a Terminator sequel (with enough left over to clone Gov. Schwarzenegger and have him play both the hero and villain), but is too poor to feed sick grannies or put Americans to work repairing our crumbling infrastructure.