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Trump’s plan to lock up more immigrants could profit privately run detention centers

Detainees who are in the country illegally sleep and pass the time in one of the pods of the Northwest Detention Center's 1575-bed facility in Tacoma, Wash. Ninety percent of the cases in the Tacoma immigration court originated in local jails and prisons.
Detainees who are in the country illegally sleep and pass the time in one of the pods of the Northwest Detention Center's 1575-bed facility in Tacoma, Wash. Ninety percent of the cases in the Tacoma immigration court originated in local jails and prisons. The News Tribune

President Donald Trump’s plans to lock up more immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally could aid large private companies such as The GEO Group Inc., which has a federal contract to run the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, one of the largest in the nation.

For years, Washington state Democratic Rep. Adam Smith has argued that jailing immigrants is too expensive and inhumane and that Congress should scrap a mandate that requires the federal government to fill 34,000 detention beds every day. He called it an “indiscriminate quota” that requires the government and companies such as GEO to detain immigrants even if they pose no threat.

Now Smith is among the many critics who expect demand for beds at the center on the Tacoma Tideflats and others around the nation to only grow and for companies such as GEO to prosper.

“I cannot imagine a set of circumstances where Trump’s presidency doesn’t have the amount of people detained in Tacoma growing at a depressing level,” Smith said.

GEO, which operates 64 correctional facilities in the United States, has already watched its stock price soar since the Nov. 8 election. That happened after one of its subsidiaries contributed $225,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now during the presidential campaign, prompting a complaint to the Federal Election Commission.

“It’s very clear that GEO made these contributions in order to influence the election,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign-finance watchdog group. “Spending $225,000 helping Trump get elected has to be a pretty good way to stay in Trump’s good graces.”

In its complaint to the FEC, the Campaign Legal Center accused GEO of violating a 75-year-old ban that prohibits companies with federal contracts from making political contributions.

Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for GEO, which is based in Boca Raton, Florida, said the contribution was legal because it was made by a subsidiary, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., that has no contracts with any governmental agency.

“The contribution was fully compliant with all applicable federal election laws,” Paez said.

The FEC has yet to rule on the complaint.

The GEO Group Inc. PAC, funded by contributions from the company’s executives and employees, also sought to influence members of Congress, contributing nearly $281,000 to federal campaigns during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, another campaign finance watchdog organization. Eighty-seven percent of the money went to Republican candidates. It marked nearly a threefold increase from the 2014 election cycle, when the PAC gave more than $100,000 to federal candidates, with 65 percent of the money going to Republicans.

The flow of money comes as no surprise to Smith, an 11th-term congressman and the new dean of the Washington state House of Representatives delegation.

“You know, I think GEO has a pretty good bead on what is in their best interests,” he said. “Trump will have to go looking for ways to expand these detention centers so he can lock up more people.”

In an executive order signed on Jan. 25, Trump called for 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents to secure U.S. borders.

Declaring that illegal immigration “presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States,” Trump said he wanted to end the practice of “catch and release,” in which immigrants living in the United States illegally are routinely released after their apprehension.

And the president ordered John Kelly, his new secretary of homeland security, to “take all appropriate action” to create contracts to operate and control facilities “to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” As a presidential candidate, Trump said he would back more privately run prisons.

While Smith wants to get rid of the congressional directive that requires 34,000 detention beds to be filled on a daily basis, it’s backed by Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

When McCaul discovered that only 30,773 of the beds were occupied at one point in 2013, he wrote a letter to John Morton, who was then the head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, accusing the agency of having a “weak stance on national security” and telling him it was “a clear violation” of federal law.

When Trump signed the executive order, McCaul said the president had taken “bold action” to protect the U.S. borders.

“He is putting an end to the last administration’s reckless immigration policies by ensuring we don’t just ‘catch and release’ illegal aliens, but that we catch and deport them – especially those who have committed crimes,” McCaul said in a statement.

Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal said the language in the Trump order made clear that the president wanted to give “a giant gift, wrapped with a bow on it” to private prison operators.

“This is going to be a great boondoggle for all of these private detention facilities and companies like GEO,” said Jayapal, a freshman member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. “That is a terrifying idea to me. . . . It’s just money into the pockets of these corporations who make profits off of detaining immigrants.”

While Trump’s executive order is focused on securing the southern U.S. border, Smith predicted that the demand for additional beds will grow at detention centers across the nation, including at the Tacoma facility, which he said now could hold 1,575 individuals.

Paez, the GEO vice president, said the company “can’t speculate about future policy initiatives,” including whether more beds would be added to the Tacoma facility.

But he added: “We look forward to working with both the new administration and the new Congress in continuing our long-standing partnership with the federal government, providing high-quality and cost-effective services while treating those entrusted in our care with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Smith and Jayapal said it would be more humane and less costly to phase out the detention centers and rely more on community-based support programs. As an example, Smith said nonprofit groups could help immigrants with legal services and housing while they awaited their immigration proceedings, which would allow them to continue working.

Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said conditions in many of the detention centers were “highly disturbing,” a key reason that she has urged the Department of Homeland Security to get rid of them.

“I find it completely backward that the federal government gives vast amounts of taxpayer dollars to private prison companies without meaningful oversight or transparency about how for-profit facilities across the U.S. treat some of the most vulnerable immigrants in our country, including women, children, asylum seekers, LGBTQ people and sexual assault survivors,” Murray said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob

Here’s the language in the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 25, 2017:

Sec. 5. Detention Facilities. (a) The Secretary (of Homeland Security) shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.

Source: The White House