The Sinister Impetus Behind The Record Number Of Detained Immigrants

April 27th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Since 2010, record numbers of unauthorized border crossers have been detained in federally contracted prisons––but not necessarily because there are more of them to arrest. In fact, border crossings from Mexico have recently been almost at their lowest levels since the 1970s. 

So why are so many people being detained crossing the border? The answer, according to a new report, has to do with language buried in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention budget in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act of 2010, mandating what's come to be known as the "bed mandate" directive. 

And according to the report, released earlier this month by the Texas non-profit group Grassroots Leadership, that mandate, also known as the "immigrant detention quota," has been both upheld and increased, thanks, in part, to lobbying efforts by private prison companies in lucrative contracts with ICE to hold at least 34,000 individuals each day. Researchers say that it is the only congressionally mandated law enforcement detention quota in existence, and for Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, it's something that should make taxpayers uneasy.

"The quota contributes to a devastating and mass system of detention," Carson, who also co-authored the report, told ATTN:. "So, we're paying for this entire apparatus of detainees reporting record numbers of people, and as long as it's required to maintain a minimum number of beds, ICE is going to be pressured to fill them." 

The actual language of the quota designates that "funding made available under [the ICE DHS Appropriations Act heading] shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds." In 2013, with the government spending more money on immigration enforcement than on any other federal law enforcement agency combinedbudgeters suggested cost-saving measures such as lowered bed mandates and cheaper alternatives to jail, but House Republicans fought back and raised the mandate to 34,000.

The report's findings suggest that the quota has "become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy" that has come to define how the U.S. criminal justice system approaches unauthorized entry and reentry––currently some of the top most prosecuted crimes in the country. But the numbers also suggest an affirmation of the power of money over policy decisions, while also highlighting the weakness of those who fund and inhabit the system.

In that sense, researchers say that as long as the quota exists, for-profit prison companies are insured against losing their profit margins. 

"It's kind of this cycle of [private prison companies] receiving these contracts and then reinvesting that profit into Congress to maintain the quota, which amounts to an insurance policy for them against any decreases that future administrations might chose to implement in immigrant detention," said Carson. 

Although 62 percent of ICE detention beds exist in for-profit prisons, up from 49 percent in 2009, as well as nine out of the 10 largest facilities, a majority of those are operated by just two companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and the GEO Group––the two largest private prison operators in the country––which collectively brought in close to $500 million in 2014 alone. The report also details how those companies lobbied to help secure and increase profits through contracts with ICE to hold greater numbers of undocumented immigrants. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA, the largest of the two companies, spent more than $10.5 million "in quarters where they lobbied on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform." Of that, CCA spent over $9.7 million directly lobbying the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, which maintains the quota. The report also found that GEO spent $460,000 between 2011 and 2014 on similar immigration and detention issues. 

While private prison lobbying monies reach startling heights, the profits that effort secures is many times more: The report found that both companies' profits have increased since the quota's implementation, with CCA jumping from $133,373,000 in 2007 to $195,022,000 last year and GEO from $41,845,000 to $143,840,000 over the same time period. 

A CCA spokesperson did not immediately respond to ATTN:'s request for comment on the study. 

The report comes at a time when immigration crimes have become a priority, attracting record government spending and what Carson says is a dangerous reliance on large, private facilities as more and more people are detained.

"[F]or-profit prisons have seized a greater portion of the immigrant detention industry since the creation of the quota in 2009, so they've increased their share by 13 percent since just before the implementation of the quota and that's resulted in record profit for CCA and GEO," Carson said. "The other thing the quota does is that it causes an increased reliance on for-profit prison corporations because they're often the only ones to be able to run such large facilities. So that's why the quota is essential in all of this." 

The provision has faced pushback over the years from activists and legislators alike thanks to the fact that non-violent border crossers are held simply to meet the quota, not to protect the public from a threat. At a congressional hearing in 2013, Janet Napolitano, then-Homeland Security Secretary, said that ICE should be detaining people "according to public-safety threats, level of offense...not an arbitrary bed number." That same year, two congressmen introduced legislation that would have removed the quota language from the funding bill––though it was voted down. 

The report includes suggestions urging legislators to remove the immigrant detention quota from its 2016 appropriations request, and Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fl.) introduced a sign-on letter, which has so far been signed by dozens of members of Congress, pushing the Administration to oppose the quota in the President's 2016 budget request. Immigration detention, it notes, costs the U.S. $2 billion a year.