How much do private prisons stand to gain from Trump’s immigration enforcement policies?
President Donald Trump ran a campaign touting his aggressive goals to arrest, detain and ultimately deport many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. So far, Trump has made a concerted effort to realize those promises, implementing hardline immigration policies that have contributed to a 39% increase in immigrant arrests over the first six months of his presidency.
That statistic is more than just a bragging point for Trump, who’s eager to please his supporter base — it’s money in the pockets of for-profit prisons across the U.S.
The GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, is particularly optimistic when it comes to how Trump’s policies could impact its bottom line. While the company has seen a 2% decrease in earnings since Trump took office, GEO Group’s executives say the spike in arrests, coupled with longer detention times and potential Congress appropriations, will likely make up for it. And then some.
“We believe we are in a transition period with this new administration, having reduced illegal border crossings and now focusing on interior enforcement,” senior vice president and CFO Brian Evans said on a Monday call, according to a Think Progress report. “The new interior enforcement initiative may very well provide additional opportunities due to the need for establishing additional processing centers throughout the country rather than only clustered along the southern border.”
The Trump administration has already cemented its relationship with the GEO Group — which donated $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC during the 2016 election — via a $110 million contract, money that will go toward the construction of a 1,000-person immigration detention center.
“Immigration detention is a huge part of how private prisons are able to stay in business,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Eisen said for-profit prisons began to see immigration detention as a serious source of revenue in the late 1990s, when news of escapes and riots had sent stocks trending downward. When immigration to the U.S. peaked between 1999 and 2000, it presented a lucrative opportunity for businesses like GEO Group. Now, private immigration detention centers account for about 60% of the beds in the country.
“For-profit corporations looked at immigration detention as a way to salvage their business model,” Eisen said. “That has saved the industry.”
“For-profit corporations looked at immigration detention as a way to salvage their business model. That has saved the industry.”
According to the Office of the Inspector General’s August 2016 report on private prisons, contract prisons housed about 22,660 undocumented immigrants, “or about 12% of the [Federal Bureau of Prison’s] total inmate population” as of December 2015.
That same month, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates had made an effort to break ties between the federal government and for-profit prisons, instructing officials to allow any outstanding contracts with private prisons to expire.
“[Private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote in a memo at the time.
In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions penned his own memo rolling back Yates’ directive, and thus rekindling the relationship between the Department of Justice and the country’s for-profit prisons. Forbes reported GEO Group’s stocks hit a “new record high” following the decision. Months later, Sessions also pushed for longer, harsher sentences for undocumented immigrants convicted of a “serious, readily provable offense.”
The Trump administration’s end goal may not necessarily be for the country’s undocumented immigrants to languish in private prisons, taking up space and resources. But that’s the way things are shaking out so far. In June, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial arguing that Trump’s aggressive immigration policies were “overwhelming an already taxed court system,” adding to the lengthy backlog leftover from the Obama administration and, thus, increasing detention times for newly-detained immigrants.
“The system is not working well for anybody except, perhaps, the operators of private prisons and local jails with ICE contracts that handle most of the detained immigrants,” the paper’s editorial board wrote at the time.
According to Ed Chung, the vice president of criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, that “system” incentivizes for-profit prisons to fill as many cells as possible. And that’s a huge problem.
“If you’re being paid per-prisoner or for the percentage of capacity in your prison, then you want to have more people in prison for a business reason — not for a public safety reason,” Chung said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Chung called the administration’s ties to for-profit prisons a “disservice” to the general standards of the Department of Justice, which should be to promote public safety and justice, “not create more inmates for businesses.”
“What private prison groups are banking on is that the Trump administration will go after undocumented immigrants no matter what their criminal history and no matter how long they’ve been in the country,” Chung said. “Past administrations’ priorities have been discarded. Now anyone who’s undocumented could be targeted for detention, arrest and deportation.”
Daniel Ramirez Medina, a “Dreamer” who had been allowed to live and work in the U.S. thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (known as DACA), had been one of the earliest examples of these arrests.
When immigration officials took Ramirez into custody in February, federal immigration officials identified him as a “self-admitted gang member,” while his legal representatives called him a “law-abiding” father. After protests over his arrest and subsequent detention swept both New York City and Seattle, ICE released Ramirez on a $15,000 bond.
In April, the Washington Post reported ICE arrests of non-criminal undocumented immigrants “more than doubled” with 5,441 total arrests.
Randy Capps, the director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said in an interview that the government’s relationship with for-profit prisons isn’t among undocumented immigrants’ top concerns. When it comes down to being detained or being deported, the former can mean more time to appeal their case in the immigration court system — and therefore give them a shot at remaining in the U.S.
“I don’t think unauthorized immigrants are worried about for-profit prisons,” Capps said on Wednesday. “They fear deportation more so in a lot of cases.”
Still, working with private prisons gives the Trump administration the flexibility to continue targeting undocumented immigrants like Ramirez since the government has the ability to contract beds in prisons anywhere in the U.S., not just near the border. Another plus was that Trump got to flaunt a $1 billion budget cut to the construction of federal prisons, a huge win for Republicans looking to shrink the federal government — and a huge boon for operators of private prisons.
“If you’re not going to build more prisons, but you’re going to increase the number of people in federal custody, where are those people going to be housed?” Chung asked. “It seems like the answer is pretty obvious. Private prisons.”