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Many Profit from Immigrants’ Misery: Imprisoning Immigrants in Private Prisons and County Jails

From National Geographic to The New Yorker , more and more publications are featuring stories about immigrants coming to the United States, putting a human face on a group of people which are being demonized and dehumanized by our government’s current policies.

The New Yorker article (Margaret Talbot, “The Lost Children: What Do Tougher Detention Policies Mean for Illegal Immigrant Families?” March 3, 2008) exposes the inhumanity of the immigration policy which has turned into big business the imprisonment of families and children in addition to tens of thousands of other immigrants, in privately-owned and run prisons. Talbot outlines the history of the mistreatment of families with children in the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, one of the detention centers run by the private corporation, the Corrections Corporation of America. Private Prisons, A Lucrative Business Talbot calls detention of immigrants the “fastest-growing form of incarceration in the country, a lucrative business.”

This booming business is a windfall for the stockholders of the private prison industry, at the expense of poor people caught in this trap. For immigrants are no longer jailed for a few days until they can be deported, but rather for months and years. It is hard to understand that the huge expense of building prisons and keeping people in jail for extended periods has somehow turned into profit for the few who hold stocks in what has turned into a private busi-ness. This new, very profitable business is being built on the backs of the immigrants, but paid for by the taxpayers.

When the custom of releasing immigrants on their own recognizance was ended in 2005, the massive building program for prisons to detain them began. There is already, for example, a large new detention center in Raymondville, Texas, and many others are in the planning and construction stages. They are billed by Congress people in the local communities as sure money makers. Congress has approved a budget for 2008 fiscal year, providing funding for a 4,500-bed increase in the immigration detention beds to 32,000 beds from the prior year’s 27,500. Private corporations, including the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, are bidding against each other to win contracts to operate new prisons.

The Associated Press reported this year that the Corrections Corporation of America spent $2.5 million lobbying the federal government in 2007. According to that article, reprinted in the blog of Forbes magazine, the lobbying of the federal government came in three major areas: 1) lobbying to privatize the Bureau of Indian Affairs prison system. 2) lobbying against the Public Safety Act which would outlaw private prisons, and 3) lobbying against the Private Prison Information Act which would give the public the same access to private prison information as public prisons.

It is a scandal that these corporations are spending millions to lobby Congress and state governments with the very millions given to them by the government. Fast Money for County Jails The federal government has been paying counties to hold immigrants in their jails for years. That practice continues and makes it difficult for families to find their loved ones. Imprisonment of immigrants in county jails is seen as a great source of income by sheriffs and other county officials.

According to Meredith Kolodner, writing on News 21, a Journalism Initiative of the Carnegie and Knight foundations, already in 2006, fifty-seven percent of all immigrants were held in county jails. Counties are given between $50 to $90 a day for jailing immigrants. Those who are held because of not having proper documen-tation have broken the civil law, not the criminal law, but they are held in a punitive situation together with robbers and murderers. They are not able to find legal assistance becuase the pro bono lawyers upon whom immigrants – who are not guaranteed a lawyer under U. S. law – depend, are mostly located in large cities and can be hours away from jails located in rural, sparsely populated counties.

Bad News from Pasadena, Texas

The story one of the very ill people we help may give some idea. Rumors from Pasadena, Texas, have been confirmed by this eyewitness. The woman, whom we will call Bertha, is near death from congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and diabetes. Given a ride to Casa Juan Diego by a neighbor, she rushed in to tell us that that she is afraid she will be next. All that she needs to push her over the edge is being captured by Immigration. Immigration enforcement people are arresting day laborers waiting for work in her neighborhood and then fanning out into nearby apartments to arrest more people—without an arrest warrant or deportation order.

The sick woman could hardly stop talking as she described what is happening to immigrants in Pasadena, right in the apartment complex where she lives. She watched out the window as several of these local “raids” took place. The workers were carried off with their little lunches for the day still in their hands. It would require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that these men with their little lunch bags are the terrorists and dangerous criminals the Department of Homeland Security contends are the target of the cooperation between ICE, state, and local law enforcement. Bertha also told us of the special traffic stops which are snagging unsuspecting drivers who are identified there as undocumented, taken to jail and immediately turned over to Immigration, with no opportunity to contact a lawyer. We know this scenario is being repeated in communities across the United States.

While stockholders look for even greater profit, more and more immigrants are being detained under strange circumstances. The Houston Chronicle recently featured a front-page article on people being taken out of line at Houston airports by Immigration to be detained possibly for many months. These were people waiting to board planes to return to their homes in other countries. Now the government will have to pay for their prison time and their plane fare back.

The efforts ICE to establish a permanent presence in the Travis County Jail in Texas provoked protests and criticism from the community. James C. Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, protested the plan: “Immigration and Customs enforcement (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization service has the undistinguished reputation of an agency that operates with impunity, outside the parameters of the U. S. Constitution. Not only has it been the subject of extensive litigation, but movies and borderland ballads have chronicled the seamier side of “la migra.” So arbitrarily does it exercise power that “la migra” is loathed and feared in the Hispanic community, even by those who trace their American citizenry back to when Texas became a state.” Harrington points out that minor offenses and domestic violence cases are a great concern, fearing that ICE presence will adversely affect abused immigrant women and people with petty charges, such as misdemeanor traffic vio-lations. He points out that the experience of the Civil Rights Project is that ICE makes many mistakes and is sometimes capricious with legal residents.

“Because a judge will seldom grant bail where there’s an ICE detainer, an erroneous or malevolent detainer for someone charged with a petty offense may last for weeks of months, causing people to lose their jobs and adversely affecting their families. The for-profit prisons in our land are not only for immigrants. One in 100 Americans is in prison and 1 in 9 African-American men is in prison (Latinos are over-represented, but the numbers are not always clear because until recently most states counted them as white.) As the prisons are privatized, profits are added as gains to the Gross Domestic Product, making it appear that our economy is doing well. It seems that the United States has gone from being the land of the free and the home of the brave to being the land of massive incarceration.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIII, No. 3, May-June 2008.