On the same day that the GOP shut down the federal government, I heard a horrifying statistic. Under law, taxpayers must pay to keep 34,000 people in jail, at a cost of about $120 each per day, even as the number of immigrants caught coming illegally into the U.S. has fallen by more than half since the beginning of the most current recession. That’s almost $4 million per day—every day. I knew that the Arizona governor had made a deal with a private prison company to fill the prisons in the state with undocumented immigrants, but I had no idea that it was also a federal mandate.
Since 2009, when then-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) added this mandate to the Homeland Security Department’s annual spending bill, federal immigration officials have operated under a statutory quota on how many people to hold behind bars. The law requires only that 34,000 beds must be available for these immigrants regardless of the number or them or the crimes that they commit. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency translates this requirement, however, as keeping “a yearly average daily population of approximately 34,000 individuals,” former ICE Director John Morton told a congressional panel last March.
As the editors of Bloomberg wrote:
“Some detained noncitizens are violent criminals who need to be locked up. Others are mothers or fathers who have committed traffic violations. Their forced separation from families and jobs undermines both social cohesion and the economy — at taxpayer expense. Undocumented immigrants tracked in alternative (nondetention) programs appeared for administrative hearings more than 90 percent of the time, according to Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. They complied with final orders 84 percent of the time. Yet ICE detains more than 400,000 immigrants in more than 250 jails and other facilities at an annual cost of $2 billion.”
The editorial goes on to give reasons for this inordinate expenditure. Punishment for undocumented immigrants is very popular with conservatives, and private-prison lobbies keep these detention centers open. Also a 2013 National Immigration Forum report pointed out that local officials have also “treated the increase in bed mandates as a source of revenue for counties and a job creator for their region.”
The White House 2014 budget requested $120 million less for immigration detention beds that House GOP members want, which didn’t make the GOP happy. The GOP also voted down an amendment from Democrat Reps. Ted Deutch (FL) and Bill Foster (IL) to strike the detention mandate from the Homeland Security appropriation bill. Alternatives to detention such as ankle bracelets, curfews, and home visits cost taxpayers much less, but those wouldn’t give GOP governments as much money. Although 41 percent of detainees are Level 1, the lowest-risk group, Congress forces taxpayers to pay for keeping these people in prison.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Homeland Security Committee chairman, told ICE officials in February that they were “in clear violation of statute” when the detainee population fell to 30,773 after the sequester caused them to release 2,200 to save money. During a hearing, Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) complained to Morton about getting too few inmates to fill his district’s detention beds.
The GOP is big on privatization, and prisons are at the top of their list. Government jailers Corrections Corp. (CXW) and Geo, two publically-traded companies that actively lobby Congress, have doubled in value in the past three years. Corrections Corp. has spent more than $13 million on lobbyists since 2005, among them past appropriations-committee employees, and Geo has spent more than $2.8 million during that time.
These privately-run prisons suffer from staffing shortages, rapid employee turnover, and cost-cutting that results in dangerous conditions for inmates. At the same time these same prisons waste taxpayers’ money. For example, assaults in one Ohio prison almost tripled after Corrections Corp. took over. A riot at a Natchez (MS) immigrant facility, also run by the same private company, left a guard dead and 20 people injured last year.
Yet state governments keep supporting these private prison companies. California Gov. Jerry Brown committed $1.14 billion over three years for thousands of prison cells, and Geo got a $8.5 million annual contract to hold up to 400 immigrants in Alexandria (LA).
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter forced immigration judges to grant bond hearings for California inmates detained for more than six months. After 400 such hearings beginning in November, about two-thirds were released on bail. ICE employees had been told to increase arrests and deportations because the numbers were too low. The person responsible for these emails, former ICE administrator David Venturella, is now a high official with Geo, a leading private prison corporation.
The House, with its fixation on shutting down the government, has ignored the plight of immigrants despite a bill passed by the Senate. One of that bill’s provisions would give ICE and judges greater discretion to release detainees of no risk to the community. A benefit of this bill would be an average of 14,000 new jobs in each congressional district over the next decade, with no district having fewer than 7,000. That’s approximately 6 million new jobs. This analysis came from the center-right American Action Network (AAN).
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate’s bill would reduce deficits by $197 billion over 10 years. Although building more miles on the fence between the U.S. and Mexico, doubling the number of border agents, and other border security measures would cost $262 billion, people given legal status and newly admitted temporary workers would increase revenue by $459 billion by paying taxes.
Much of the opposition to immigration reform comes from racism, as Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has frequently demonstrated. In August King spoke at a Tea Party-sponsored “Stop Amnesty” rally and claimed that the United States needs to keep people from coming north into the country because the population gets more violent as one moves further south in Latin America. He asserted that people from a “violent civilization” would create a more violent environment for individuals living in a “less-violent civilization.” Fortunately, the rally was not well attended.
A few undocumented immigrants are allowed to stay in the United States, thanks to a loophole that members of Congress can file a “private bill” that will keep people in the country. Congressional members who have voted against the DREAM Act and opposed any other immigration reform have used this loophole so that some of their constituents or friends can stay.
The mandate for imprisoning all undocumented immigrants, even those who have not committed any crimes, promotes the occurrence of domestic abuse and rapes because women cannot report these crimes against them. Thus in criminalizing immigration, the GOP causes far more crimes that won’t be prosecuted.
The GOP, claiming to be the party of “family values,” also breaks up families because parents are deported, but the children born in the United States are left in this country. When 11-year-old Josie Molina, a U.S. citizen, asked Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) for help in a town hall meeting, he told her that her undocumented father would and should be deported. The Tea Party audience loudly cheered.
Since the shutdown, President Obama has declared immigration reform as one of his three priorities for this year. He plans to make a statement tomorrow at 10:35 am, urging members of Congress to finish work to provide a citizenship pathway for millions of people in the U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) plans to take up immigration reform in a piecemeal approach typical of the GOP.
Congressional leaders such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) are using the shutdown as an excuse to not work on immigration reform. Both claimed that they wouldn’t be able to make a “good faith effort” to negotiate with the president because of his refusal to negotiate during the shutdown. Rubio also asserted that the president is “trying to destroy” the Republican Party. Conservatives are also worried that House leaders might meet with Senate negotiators.
GOP members of Congress dragging their feet on immigration reform will find themselves opposed by a coalition of evangelical Christians called the Evangelical Immigration Table. They plan a two-day event on October 28-29 to lobby lawmakers and hold a news conference. The GOP has already alienated women, minorities, poor, and LGBT people; they can’t afford to lose the evangelicals too.