When discussing immigrants’ rights, presidential candidates tend to focus solely on how their administration would create a pathway to citizenship and funnel more resources to the border. But detention centers are perhaps the most troubling and overlooked aspect of the United States’ broken immigration system, and they are a topic many major media outlets are failing to engage candidates on.
And even when detention centers are brought up, candidates don’t always clearly articulate a stance. For example, even when a candidate is pushing for an end to privately run detention centers, they aren’t necessarily calling for an end to the detention of undocumented folks. This is certainly true of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom is vowing to disrupt the detention system, just who oversees it.
But whether they are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or a for-profit entity, detention centers are alarming for a number of reasons, as are the connections some politicians have to them.
Before examining the candidates’ stances on—and ties to—detention, it’s important to understand which institutions are behind the current explosion of facilities here in the United States.
Detention Centers, Explained
The number of immigrants in detention centers has steadily increased since the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Under these policies, mandatory detention of non-citizens became the norm, despite the fact that, as noted by the American Civil Liberties Union, prolonged detention is a violation of the right to due process.
Simply put, detention—and family detention in particular—is inhumane. Women and children fleeing violence in their countries of origin, for example, present themselves at the border as asylum seekers, as is required by law, yet they’re placed in what are essentially prisons with their young children. They also remain in detention indefinitely, often in unsafe conditions. According to the American Immigration Council, because “there are no statutory limits to the amount of time a non-citizen may be held in immigration detention,” the length of detention stays for asylum seekers varies depending on, among other factors, the status of their application. For asylum applicants, the average length of detention is 65 days, but many asylum applicants are kept in immigration detention for several months, sometimes even years.
U.S. government policies ensure that there are always plenty of people in detention. As the Nation reported in August 2014, the United States keeps at least 34,000 undocumented immigrants in detention each day for the purpose of meeting a quota, also known as the “detention-bed mandate.” The quota, which the Nation reported took effect in 2007, appears in the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Advocates contend the quota is linked to industry lobbying. Since its implementation, “the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy,” according to the Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership.
The expansion of the immigration detention system has proven to be profitable for private prison corporations and local governments. Of the roughly 350 facilities used to detain immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), only about eight are owned and run by ICE. According to the National Immigration Forum, ICE contracts with more than 240 state and county jails and private correctional corporations to house immigrant detainees.
The average U.S. citizen isn’t aware that detention centers may exist in their community, even though it’s costing taxpayers billions. The system operates without much visibility, yet in 2014 DHS requested some $2 billion in detention funding for the year; the agency maintains the detention system costs over $5 million a day.
“Family detention centers” are specifically used to detain mothers and their young children, often asylum seekers fleeing gender-based violence. Reports have found that the conditions in detention centers are entirely inappropriate for mothers and children, and that detention often traumatizes families, undermines the basic family structure, and has a devastating psychosocial impact. Privately run centers, in particular, have seen numerous allegations of human rights violations over the years, including accusations of child abuse, physical and sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, and use of solitary confinement.
Immigrants in all detention centers are regularly denied basic due process rights, with no government-appointed attorneys for those in deportation proceedings.
How Private Companies Profit
The for-profit businesses behind the facilities have raked in billions from the detention of undocumented communities and, in turn, have made campaign contributions to support some unlikely bedfellows.
The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), make anywhere from $122 to $159 per detainee per day. At the former family detention center in Texas, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, CCA has been able to receive up to $200 a day per detainee, according to Detention Watch Network.
Recently, the research firm In the Public Interest illustrated how private companies profit from all corners of America’s detention system, from the detention facility to the bail bonds to GPS ankle monitoring to the deportation itself.
The often unlawful imprisonment of undocumented immigrants has created a new market that primarily benefits for-profit prison companies.
It should come as no surprise why GEO and CCA have a combined annual revenue of $3.3 billion. These companies also regularly lobby Congress for more detention centers, according to the Washington Post. GEO and CCA have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989.
This broken system, it seems, has also benefited some presidential candidates who have accepted campaign donations tied to privately owned detention centers. There isn’t a single presidential hopeful on either side who has shown a clear understanding of the consequences of detention centers, and some aren’t necessarily advocating for their complete closure.
Last month, during the Fusion Television Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to “end private detention centers,” something she outlined in further detail during December’s National Immigrant Integration Conference, saying, “There are people in immigration detention right now who are on a hunger strike. We need to be focused on detention conditions. And as president, I’ll close private immigration detention centers. This is a critical government responsibility, and we should not be outsourcing it to anyone else.”
These declarations can serve Clinton well. A recent Gallup poll found that 20 percent of nearly 2,000 registered voters said they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on immigration, while another 60 percent said they consider the candidates’ stance on immigration one of many important issues they will take into consideration on Election Day. But those looking to vote for a candidate who wants to abolish the detention system need to take a closer look at what Clinton is really saying.
There is a stark difference between vowing to close detention centers entirely because they are unethical and profit off of vulnerable communities, and vowing to close private immigration detention centers.
On Clinton’s site, her stance is clearly articulated: “She [Clinton] believes we should move away from contracting out this critical government function to private corporations and private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”
In May, Clinton earned the applause of immigration advocates when at a roundtable in Nevada, she said she was “very worried about detention and detention facilities for people who are vulnerable and for children,” saying the focus should be on detaining immigrants who have “a record of violent, illegal behavior.”
These kinds of statements paint a tidy picture of the very complex reality of immigrants’ lives. Sometimes those who are vulnerable have criminal records and often, those people are parents.
Clinton added, according to the U.S. News and World Report:
“I don’t think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities because I think they’re at risk. I think that their physical and mental health are at risk,” [she] said, adding that the government should be giving such migrants support and representation while changing the current processes “within the kind of discretion … the president has exercised with his executive orders.”
Put plainly, Clinton’s plan is to stop the privatization of detention centers and instead, make them a function solely of the government. In October, Clinton’s campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa released a statement on Clinton’s behalf further outlining her plan, saying Clinton “believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government, and when we’re dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don’t need private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”
It’s also important to note that the presidential hopeful’s campaign and PAC has had ties to privately owned detention centers. As the Intercept reported in July, two of the Clinton campaign’s fundraisers are connected to two major prison companies, and Vice reported in October that lobbying firms working for GEO and CCA gave $133,246 to the Ready for Hillary PAC. Clinton has since said she will stop accepting campaign contributions from those corporations and the lobbyists who work for them.
Unlike Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has not accepted contributions from big-name supporters with ties to private detention centers, but like her, it is his goal to end private centers. Within three years, the senator from Vermont wants to put an end to all of the government’s private prison and detention center contracts with the hope of curbing the country’s soaring mass incarceration rate.
In September, Sanders announced that he was co-sponsoring the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, which aims to reduce the inmate population in federal, state, and local facilities that has skyrocketed because of “draconian criminal laws, politically powerful corporations profiting from incarceration, immigration enforcement policies, and strict policies regarding parole and release of prisoners.”
Three of the legislation’s seven proposed reforms are detention center-related. Sanders and co-sponsor, Arizona congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D), aim to require ICE to improve the monitoring of detention facilities to “ensure humane treatment of detainees,” and end family detention and the bed quota.
Sanders is also pushing to see immigrants in detention released and monitored through ankle bracelets or required check-ins with immigration agents. His plan is being called ambitious, but like Clinton, Sanders has done little to quell advocates’ fear that private detention centers will simply be replaced by government-run detention centers.
While Donald Trump garners most of the headlines about immigration on the GOP side because of his egregious, racist comments, it’s actually Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who has the most nefarious ties to the immigrant detention system. Rubio’s PACs and campaign have taken a total of $133,450 from private prison companies or groups that lobby on their behalf, but Rubio’s relationship with these companies goes back further than the campaign trail.
As the Washington Post reported, Rubio has had close ties to GEO for years, since his time as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. The Republican Party of Florida PAC has received over $2 million from GEO and CCA since 1989 and in 2010, GEO and its affiliates provided $33,500 to political action committees benefiting Florida Republicans, including the Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate PAC. As of April 2015, GEO’s co-founder and chief executive, George Zoley, had personally donated thousands of dollars to Rubio.
This is not just a matter of accepting money from companies with histories of human rights abuse allegations in their detention centers and prisons. The bigger question, especially as it relates to Rubio, is how accepting this money influences policy—and it seems to have done so. There are documented instances of private-prison companies appearing to influence policies that put more people in detention centers, including Arizona’s racist immigration laws, which pass, in part, because of companies like GEO and CCA that lobby for funding for ICE.
The Center for Media and Democracy detailed how Rubio’s connections to GEO during his time in the Florida house gave the private prison company a seat at the table. Rubio hired Donna Arduin as an economic consultant; Arduin is a former trustee for GEO’s Correctional Properties Trust. According to reports, Arduin worked with Rubio’s then-budget chief, Ray Sansom, to push a $110 million deal for a new GEO prison in the House Appropriations Bill. In the same report, the Center for Media and Democracy detailed how legislation that benefited GEO followed Arduin’s presence in government from California to Florida.
When Rubio won the Senate seat in 2011, he appointed Cesar Conda as his chief of staff. Conda was co-founder of what would become GEO’s main lobbying firm, Navigators Global. While working with Rubio, Conda still received payments of $150,000 from Navigators Global as part of a stock buyout arrangement. The Washington Post reports that in April 2014, Conda went on to lead Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC as a senior adviser, until rejoining Navigators Global in November of that year. During Conda’s time with Rubio, GEO became a top-ten contributor to Reclaim America, giving $16,000 in 2014. Navigators Global also obtained $610,000 from GEO between 2011 and 2014, all while it lobbied for immigration reform on GEO’s behalf.
Rubio does not address detention once in his immigration plan.
According to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s immigration plan, the number of people in detention will increase dramatically under his administration, as will the resources used to imprison them.
The Texas senator asserts there haven’t been nearly as many deportations under President Obama as possible—and in his estimation, as necessary. According to Cruz’s website, “During the first five years of the Obama Administration, President Obama removed or returned only 3.8 million ‘illegal’ entrants. That is a fraction of the removals and returns during the previous five years, and a fraction of what we could accomplish if we had a President who actually forced DHS to do its job and removed politics from an agency charged with law enforcement. As President, I would do just that.”
Cruz wants to funnel more resources to DHS to expand the number of deportees, asserting that everyone “apprehended trying to enter the United States without permission will be detained until they are removed from the United States.”
Despite reports finding that family detention is harmful and inhumane, Cruz wants to double down on all detention, including keeping asylum seekers detained as their cases are pending. Specifically, as it relates to asylum seekers, Cruz wants to “utilize the executive branch’s discretionary authority to ensure detention is enforced in all asylum cases. Detention of those making asylum claims will ensure rapid processing of legitimate claims and rapid deportation of false claims, and will go a long way toward discouraging those with bogus claims from attempting to come here.”
Cruz is advocating that detention centers be government-run and asserting that ICE-run detention centers are a priority. The senator plans to “[s]upport ICE agents and their enforcement efforts by significantly increasing permanent detention capacity for illegal immigrants in the interior of the United States, and give ICE leadership the flexibility to procure additional, temporary detention space from the General Services Administration and state and local law enforcement on an as-needed basis. The Obama Administration has limited detention space for illegal immigrants who are taken into custody to limit the ability of ICE agents to detain illegal immigrants and begin the process of deportation. I will end that practice.”
Billionaire and former reality TV show host Donald Trump has said a lot about immigration, but not much about detention centers. Given his plan to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States—and their U.S. citizen children—using a “deportation force,” it’s safe to say the conditions in detention centers aren’t a concern to him.
Keep in mind, Trump is literally modeling his approach to deportation after President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 program “Operation Wetback,” a military-style, government operation that resulted in the mass deportation of one million people. According to CNN, the policy “plucked Mexican laborers from fields and ranches in targeted raids, bused them to detention centers along the border, and ultimately sent many of them deep into the interior of Mexico, some by airlift, others on cargo boats that typically hauled bananas.”
In her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, author Mae Ngai included a congressional report that compared the conditions on the boats to those of 18th-century slave ships. The program ended after a number of deaths due to sunstroke and drownings, but the Eisenhower administration still characterized it as a “success.”
In a recent interview, when a reporter pointed out to Trump that “Operation Wetback” is seen by many as a “shameful chapter in American history,” Trump responded, “Well, some people do, and some people think it was a very effective chapter. When they brought them back [to Mexico], they removed some, everybody else left. And it was very successful, everyone said. So I mean, that’s the way it is. Look, we either have a country, or we don’t. If we don’t have strong borders, we have a problem.”
The American Civil Liberties Union reports that the American immigration detention system locks up hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, exposing them to brutal and inhumane conditions—and it’s unnecessary. Unless policies change and politicians push for more than simply having government-run detention centers, the human rights abuses experienced by undocumented immigrants in detention will only continue.