As immigrants cross the U.S. border, they learn how inhospitable America is for asylum seekers. They also experience first hand the effects of predatory privatization, the “antidemocratic privatization of public assets and government services” that plagues many parts of American society. Private for-profit immigrant prisons are run like any other corporation. They prioritize profits, growth, and expansion. Learn more about how for-profit immigrant prisons are threatening our democracy, endangering the lives of immigrants, and making a select few rich. 

This is the America For-Profit series, exposing the ways corporations infiltrate U.S. politics, policy, and institutions that are run under the guise of public interest.

Immigrant Prisons in America

When a group of 14 U.S. lawmakers visited two Texas Border Patrol processing centers in July 2019, they discovered horrifying conditions. Detainees were forced to drink out of toilets because their cells did not have running water. Immigrants lacked access to toothbrushes and adequate blankets. They were fed spoiled, frozen, and inedible food, or given reduced portions. 

As Representative Madeline Dean of Pennsylvania recounts, “these are human beings simply trying to find a better life, and they have been caged like either animals or very bad criminals.”

When she asked some of the immigrant women, “You’re being detained here like criminals; what is your crime?” one responded, “The crime is, I crossed the damn river. I wanted to come to America.”

These facilities are publicly funded, publicly run, and publicly regulated. Yet, they still fail to provide basic human needs and support for the immigrants they house. 

If these are the conditions of publicly-regulated facilities, what are the conditions inside their for-profit counterparts? 

When detaining immigrants, and their children, becomes profitable, even more corners are cut, rights are violated, and lives are endangered. 

For-Profit Immigrant Prisons

Every day, tens of thousands of immigrants are detained in immigrant prisons and detention centers in the U.S. by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Seventy percent of them are held in for-profit facilities run by GEO Group and CoreCivic, two massive corporations with massive profits.

During the 2016 Presidential election, GEO Group donated $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the company was rewarded for its support. The Trump administration gave the GEO Group and CoreCivic a total of $985 million in contracts for immigrant prisons. 

In the first nine months of Trump’s presidency, ICE imprisoned “28,000 undocumented immigrants with no criminal records” in for-profit immigrant prisons.

This 179 percent increase from the amount of detained immigrants the previous year suggests the power of the privatization of immigration. When a wealthy company wants to expand its business, it can buy its way into politics and influence policy in its favor. 

Inside For-Profit Immigrant Prisons

The conditions in for-profit facilities are more difficult to monitor and regulate than public ones. Because these facilities are private, they are not regulated by the government as strictly. 

According to the ACLU, and 12 other legal groups, for-profit immigrant prisons are “notorious for abusive and inhumane conditions and widely criticized for [their] lack of transparency and accountability.”

In one investigation, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that ICE does not hold contractors accountable for failing operation standards, despite 14,000 existing health and safety violations. 

Who really knows what is going on in these facilities? 

Child Immigrant Prisons

Nestled away in Homestead, FL, lies a national disgrace: the first for-profit immigrant prison specifically for children. The 2,350 capacity Homestead detention facility houses children for an average of 67 days before their court dates. 

When attorneys interviewed children inside these facilities, they found “extremely traumatized children, some of whom [sat] across from [them] and [couldn’t] stop crying over what they’re experiencing.” 

They heard of inhumane rules, such as children being allowed zero physical contact with other children, even in the form of hugs between siblings or friends. Breaking the rules, the children learned, could negatively impact their immigration status.

What Has Been Done to Change This?

There has been wide-spread condemnation against for-profit immigrant prisons in the U.S. New York State, New York City, and Philadelphia have divested pension funds from GEO Group and CoreCivic. Democratic politicians in Florida and California have rejected campaign donations from GEO Group. 

In September 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 32, which prevents the state of California from creating new contracts with for-profit prison facilities starting in 2020. It also will close all existing facilities by 2028. 

But, can we wait another eight years? What about the rest of the country?

While California’s victory in immigration reform is substantial, the state only represents 8 percent of the 51,000 people being detained by ICE. 

What More Can Be Done?

The fight to end for-profit immigration prisons is far from over. In César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández’s TEDxMileHigh talk, he urges us to start talking about abolishing these institutions. Reform is not enough. 

The introduction of acts like the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, which mandates the elimination of private immigration detention centers, is a step in the right direction. The Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act, which was introduced in February of 2019, would prohibit the U.S. government from authorizing “unlicensed temporary emergency shelters for unaccompanied alien children,” forcing the government to use alternatives to detention for immigrant children. But people are skeptical that these bills will be passed.

We also need to, as a society, begin investing in the right things. As Hernandez explains, we need to “start paying lawyers to defend immigrants and invest in justice, instead of investing in the pain and suffering of people who are seeking asylum.” 

What Can You Do?

Read Hernandez’s full list of things to do to help end for-profit immigrant prisons in the U.S. or his condensed list here: 

Next Up

America For-Profit does not end with immigrant prisons. Stay tuned for an exploration of other privatized industries like health care, data, pharma, civil forfeiture policing, and more.