The Business of Immigration Detention

As President Trump delivers on his campaign promise to crack down on unauthorized immigrants, the private prison business is booming.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says border apprehensions are down by 30 percent – so why is the federal government expanding detention facilities?

One answer: Raids.

Data obtained by the Houston Chronicle shows interior immigration arrests are up by 10 percent from last year.

Fear in immigrant communities is at an all-time high. In January of this year, ICE agents picked up 675 immigrants in a highly publicized nationwide round-up. Data obtained by the Washington Post found more than half of the immigrants picked up had either traffic convictions or no previous criminal record.

To house the increase of detainees, the Trump administration is proposing raising Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s budget by 1.6 billion dollars so it can boost the number of detention beds by 17,000.

This expansion is already underway in Conroe, Texas

Craig Doyal is the Montgomery County judge. He says the expansion will generate 300 jobs. In April, the private prison company GEO group was awarded a 110 million dollar contract to expand its detention center in Montgomery County, the Joe Corley Immigration Detention Facility.

“They said the average salary at seventeen dollars an hour a little over $17,” Doyal says, “now for the jobs that are out there sort of you know around 40000 a year. So there are a pretty decent jobs.”

Carlos Sanchez is also thinking about jobs. He’s the CEO of the local Hispanic Business Chamber. He says a lot of the work in the detention center – like building it- will be contracted out. And he wouldn’t be surprised if some of those companies might hire illegal workers.

“Somebody is going to have to  manage it, somebody is going to have to landscape it somebody is going to have to throw the garbage or you know all these things all the services that come with having a facility that size will be managed and dealt with by not only Americans but also non-Americans,” Sanchez says. 

The Geo Group said in a statement that the new complex will generate 44 million dollars in profits annually.

For the record, Geo declined my request for an interview many, many times.

But I wanted to understand just how detaining people could be a profitable business. I mean, the GEO group and its competitor, Core Civic, are publicly traded companies – you can buy stock in them right now. I’m looking at GEO’s stock right now and it’s more than tripled since election day.

I wanted to talk to someone who has been detained at one of the more than dozen immigration facilities operated by the GEO group.

Reyna is an asylum-seeker from El Salvador who was recently detained at Joe Corley – the immigration detention in Conroe that’s set to expand. Immigration detention is a business, she says. And the private prison company is running a lean operation. Immigrants, many detained for working for American companies illegally, work inside the detention center to cook and keep it clean. Reyna didn’t work, but she says at Joe Corley, some of her cell mates worked 12 hours shifts in the kitchen for 3 dollars a day.

The food was terrible, she says, and if you wanted to buy something at the commissary, the prices were jacked up.

For example, she says a packet of instant coffee costs almost 5 dollars. Reyna also told me that medical care was severely lacking, but I can’t independently confirm that. GEO turned down my interview requests and didn’t respond to my requests to tour the facility.

They did send me an email saying – quote “Our facilities are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”

So is GEO skimping on how much they spend on detainees to maximize their profits? I don’t know. The incentives are certainly there, but it’s hard for me to independently confirm or deny what Rayna said when I can’t see anything – either the facilities or their budgets – with my own eyes.

I went online to find out if any other detainees held in GEO facilities had made similar claims to Reyna, maybe on the record. A lot of the reports I found were attributed to anonymous sources – it makes sense, right? What immigrant in their right mind would go on the record right now? What reporter would let them?

But someone was willing to go on the record with me – a lawyer. Hans Meyer.

“GEO is making an incredible amount of profit from taxpayers to hold people in detention,” Meyer says. 

Hans is bringing a class action lawsuit against the GEO group on behalf of detainees in its Aurora Colorado facility.

“They’re making money off of taxpayers to detain people then they’re using the labor of the people who are detained by threatening them with solitary confinement or coercing them into working and not paying them a wage an hour for their work,” Meyer says. 

Hans couldn’t confirm the exact figures that Rayna told me about – 5 dollars for a pack of instant coffee for example – but he told me that they sounded right. His clients have told him similar things and the lawsuit he filed alleges serious labor abuses.

“They don’t have to pay cooks they don’t have to pay groundskeepers they don’t have to pay people to clean the facility. They use detainees to do that. And you know they threaten them if they don’t,” Meyer says.

Hans also brought up something I hadn’t thought about. The GEO Group donated $225,000 to Donald Trump’s campaign. Then wrote an even bigger check to Trump’s inaugural committee kicking in a quarter of a million dollars.

“They know what a good return on investment looks like and a good return on investment looks like someone like Donald Trump who absolutely. Is going to kick them those contracts and they’re going to make millions and millions if not billions of dollars,” Meyer says. “With Trump’s game plan to focus only on immigration enforcement build a wall build more detention centers. For them. You know it’s sky’s the limit. So obviously the stock has skyrocketed. The potential future profits for them is sort of off the charts.”

I went back to GEO to ask them specifically about the lawsuit and tried to get an interview with a company representative to explain their business model, but they refused. Instead, they sent the following statement:

“GEO has consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims. The volunteer work program at all immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards.”

As an evangelical preacher, Rayna spend her days praying. She is waiting to make her case for asylum in front of an immigration court. Her husband is still being held at the Joe Corley facility, they couldn’t afford his bond.  She’s worried about him because he has diabetes. But she says she doesn’t talk to him very often because phone calls cost 25 cents a minute.

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