Corporate Con Game

How the private prison industry helped shape Arizona’s anti-immigrant law.

Beau Hodai

On May 29 in Tucson, Ariz., a policeman questions a man in the city’s predominately Latino south side. The Tucson Police Department is gearing up to train its officers on how to implement the state’s new immigration law, S.B. 1070. (Photo by: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Beside my broth­ers and my sis­ters, I’ll proud­ly take a stand. When liberty’s in jeop­ardy, I’ll always do what’s right. I’m out here on the front­line, sleep in peace tonight. Amer­i­can sol­dier, I’m an Amer­i­can soldier…”

Members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) include Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Geo Group and 36 Arizona state legislators.

So goes the ring­tone of Ari­zona State Sen. Rus­sell Pearce’s (R‑Mesa) phone – as per­formed by Toby we put a boot up your ass, it’s the Amer­i­can way” Kei­th. Sec­onds into any con­ver­sa­tion with Pearce about ille­gal immi­gra­tion, you’ll dis­cov­er that the song fits. In his mind, Pearce is an Amer­i­can sol­dier” fight­ing a war that he believes threat­ens the very fiber of the nation. 

There’s been 133 nations iden­ti­fied cross­ing that bor­der. Not just Mex­i­cans, not just Hon­durans, not just El Sal­vado­ri­ans, but 133 nations. Many of those are nations of inter­est, which means that they either har­bor, aid and abet, or are some­how con­nect­ed to ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties,” says Pearce. And yet they con­tin­ue to cross that bor­der. We’ve got prayer rugs that have been found down there, oth­er things that have been found down there – and yet they [the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment] con­tin­ue to do nothing.”

So Pearce decid­ed to do some­thing. He became the proud and pri­ma­ry spon­sor of S.B. 1070 – the Sup­port Our Law Enforce­ment and Safe Neigh­bor­hoods Act – signed into law by Ari­zona Gov. Jan Brew­er in April and set to take effect on July 29.

Yet the fact is, some back­ers of S.B. 1070 are wrap­ping them­selves in the flag all the way to the bank.

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion shows that the bill’s pro­mot­ers are as equal­ly ded­i­cat­ed to bor­der pol­i­tics as they are to pro­mot­ing the for­tunes of pri­vate prison com­pa­nies, like Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca (CCA) and Geo Group, which stand to reap sub­stan­tial prof­its as more undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents end up in jail.

Pearce and the pol­i­cy pushers

In ear­ly Decem­ber 2009 – a full month and a half before S.B. 1070 was intro­duced to the Ari­zona Sen­ate and near­ly two months before its coun­ter­part was first read in the House – Pearce for­mal­ly sub­mit­ted a ver­sion of his draft­ed leg­is­la­tion to the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), an orga­ni­za­tion to which he and 35 oth­er Ari­zona leg­is­la­tors belong.

A 501(c)(3) non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, ALEC bills itself as the nation’s largest bipar­ti­san, indi­vid­ual mem­ber­ship asso­ci­a­tion of state leg­is­la­tors” and as a pub­lic-pri­vate leg­isla­tive part­ner­ship. As such, ALEC claims as mem­bers more than 2,000 state law­mak­ers (one-third of the nation’s total leg­is­la­tors) and more than 200 cor­po­ra­tions and spe­cial-inter­est groups.

The organization’s cur­rent cor­po­rate ros­ter includes the Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca (CCA, the nation’s largest pri­vate jail­er), the Geo Group (the nation’s sec­ond largest pri­vate jail­er), Sodex­ho Mar­riott (the nation’s lead­ing food ser­vices provider to pri­vate cor­rec­tion­al insti­tu­tions), the Koch Foun­da­tion, Exxon Mobil, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Boe­ing, Wal-Mart and Rupert Murdoch’s News Cor­po­ra­tion, to name just a few.

ALEC is com­prised of 10 task forces, each respon­si­ble for devel­op­ing mod­el leg­is­la­tion,” which ALEC mem­ber law­mak­ers then spon­sor and intro­duce in their home states. This occurs despite the fact that fed­er­al tax law explic­it­ly for­bids 501(c)(3) orga­ni­za­tions such as ALEC from tak­ing part in the for­ma­tion of leg­is­la­tion. ALEC pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al boasts that each year mem­ber leg­is­la­tors typ­i­cal­ly car­ry 1,000 pieces of leg­is­la­tion back to their home states, 20 per­cent of which is passed into law.

As a tes­ta­ment to ALEC’s effi­ca­cy as a pipeline for cor­po­rate-backed leg­is­la­tion, since the pas­sage of the fed­er­al health­care over­haul pack­age in late March, leg­is­la­tors in at least 38 states have intro­duced the ALEC-craft­ed Free­dom of Choice Health Care Act (Health Care Act). Iron­i­cal­ly, giv­en the fetish Pearce and oth­er ALEC law­mak­ers have for adher­ence to fed­er­al immi­gra­tion laws, the Health Care Act is mar­ket­ed as an asser­tion of the states’ sov­er­eign­ty under the Tenth Amend­ment. Inter­est­ing­ly, ALEC claims that the Health Care Act is based on an Ari­zona propo­si­tion that was defeat­ed on the bal­lot in 2008.

Pearce is an exec­u­tive mem­ber of ALEC’s Pub­lic Safe­ty and Elec­tions Task Force. The pri­vate-sec­tor exec­u­tive mem­bers of this task force include CCA, the Amer­i­can Bail Coali­tion (which is com­prised of nine of the nation’s top bail bond insurer/​bounty hunter asso­ci­a­tions), the Nation­al Beer Whole­salers Asso­ci­a­tion, the Wine and Spir­it Whole­salers Asso­ci­a­tion, the Nation­al Pawn Bro­kers Asso­ci­a­tion and Prison Fel­low­ship Min­istries. The pri­vate-sec­tor chair of the Pub­lic Safe­ty Task Force is the Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion (NRA).

Although ALEC’s leg­isla­tive mem­bers far out­num­ber cor­po­rate mem­bers, a look at the group’s finances illus­trates not only the price cor­po­ra­tions are will­ing to pay for a seat at the table with state law­mak­ers, but where the group’s loy­al­ties like­ly lie. Accord­ing to ALEC’s most recent tax records, in 2008 the group report­ed a total of $6.9 mil­lion in rev­enue – $93,387 of which was brought in through leg­isla­tive mem­ber­ship dues (a two-year mem­ber­ship is avail­able to law­mak­ers for $100, or four years at $200). On the oth­er hand, ALEC received $5.6 mil­lion (all but $1.3 mil­lion of the group’s annu­al bud­get) in con­tri­bu­tions from its cor­po­rate and spe­cial-inter­est members.

Accord­ing to Michael Hough, direc­tor of ALEC’s Pub­lic Safe­ty and Elec­tions Task Force, every bill intro­duced by any mem­ber leg­is­la­tor or cor­po­ra­tion must go through a 30-day review process of approval by both pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor ALEC mem­bers before it can become mod­el leg­is­la­tion. This process, Hough says, was set in motion for Pearce’s immi­gra­tion bill when he sub­mit­ted it to the Pub­lic Safe­ty and Elec­tions Task Force dur­ing the group’s Decem­ber 2009 meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Pearce denies that he sub­mit­ted the bill to ALEC for any pur­pose oth­er than to gain its endorse­ment and strength­en the legislation’s abil­i­ty to weath­er legal chal­lenges both in Ari­zona and oth­er states.

How­ev­er, ALEC does not issue endorse­ments, says Hough, but rather works with law­mak­ers in the for­ma­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of mod­el leg­is­la­tion. And, accord­ing to Hough, the mod­el leg­is­la­tion that emerged from Pearce’s ALEC task force in ear­ly Jan­u­ary is vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the bill intro­duced by Pearce in the Ari­zona Leg­is­la­ture lat­er that month.

Sanc­tu­ary city anar­chists’

All Ari­zona is seek­ing to do, says Pearce, is enforce cur­rent fed­er­al immi­gra­tion laws – laws that lib­er­al law­mak­ers and loud­mouth anar­chist” groups in so-called sanc­tu­ary cites” fla­grant­ly violate.

It’s ille­gal to have sanc­tu­ary poli­cies in this state under fed­er­al law, but we have them all over this coun­try. I mean, L.A. and San Fran­cis­co being – if you will – the poster cities of what’s wrong with Amer­i­ca,” says Pearce.

To rem­e­dy this sit­u­a­tion, the ALEC mod­el leg­is­la­tion (“No Sanc­tu­ary Cities for Ille­gal Immi­grants Act”) and Pearce’s Ari­zona bill both fea­ture anti-sanc­tu­ary cities pro­vi­sions that pro­hib­it any munic­i­pal, coun­ty or state pol­i­cy from ham­per­ing the abil­i­ty of any gov­ern­ment agency to com­ply with fed­er­al immi­gra­tion law. The ALEC mod­el leg­is­la­tion and the Ari­zona law also both include sanc­tions aimed at those who employ ille­gal immi­grants and tougher penal­ties for human smugglers.

The Ari­zona law has drawn the most fire for its so-called Breath­ing While Brown” pro­vi­sion that allows law enforce­ment offi­cers to arrest any­one whom they have prob­a­ble cause to believe may have com­mit­ted a crime – such as being in Ari­zona with­out prop­er doc­u­men­ta­tion. When the law goes into effect on July 29, any per­son in Ari­zona found to be with­out legal papers will be charged with the new state crime of will­ful fail­ure to com­plete or car­ry an alien reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ment,” under Arizona’s crim­i­nal tres­pass statutes.

These new crim­i­nal offences car­ry a max­i­mum fine of $100, up to 20 days in jail (30 days for a sec­ond offense) and resti­tu­tion of jail costs. By cre­at­ing these state lev­el offens­es – and by for­bid­ding local­i­ties from ignor­ing them – Pearce’s Ari­zona law and ALEC’s mod­el leg­is­la­tion effec­tive­ly con­vert every state, coun­ty and munic­i­pal police offi­cer into an enforcer of fed­er­al immi­gra­tion law. 

Accord­ing to Hough, the main dif­fer­ence between the final ver­sion of the Sup­port Our Law Enforce­ment Act as signed into law in Ari­zona and the Sanc­tu­ary Cities Act that ALEC is pro­mot­ing across the coun­try is that the ALEC leg­is­la­tion car­ries more strin­gent penal­ties under the crim­i­nal tres­pass sec­tion than the Ari­zona law.

Under the Sanc­tu­ary Cities Act’s crim­i­nal tres­pass­ing pro­vi­sion, first offences are still Class 1 mis­de­meanors, but there is no 20- to 30-day cap on incar­cer­a­tion as the final ver­sion of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 pro­vides. Addi­tion­al­ly, the Ari­zona leg­is­la­tion clas­si­fies sub­se­quent offens­es as mis­de­meanors and the Sanc­tu­ary Cities Act clas­si­fies repeat offens­es as felonies, which car­ry length­i­er terms of incarceration.

Enhanced oppor­tu­ni­ties’

Ques­tions of jus­tice aside, the immi­gra­tion drag­net cre­at­ed by S.B. 1070 in Ari­zona and the Sanc­tu­ary Cities Act, will great­ly increase the num­bers of undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents who are arrest­ed and jailed. And that bodes well for the bot­tom lines of pri­vate deten­tion cor­po­ra­tions such as CCA and Geo Group. (Nei­ther Geo Group nor CCA respond­ed to repeat­ed requests for comment.)

Over the past decade, the pri­vate-prison indus­try has increas­ing­ly shift­ed its atten­tion to the bur­geon­ing fields of undoc­u­ment­ed and crim­i­nal alien deten­tion. From Jan­u­ary 2008 to April 2010, CCA spent $4.4 mil­lion lob­by­ing the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, Immi­gra­tions and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE), the Office of the Fed­er­al Deten­tion Trustee, the Office of Bud­get Man­age­ment, the Bureau of Pris­ons, and both hous­es of Con­gress. Of the 43 lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure reports CCA filed dur­ing this peri­od, only five do not express­ly state intent to mon­i­tor or influ­ence immi­gra­tion reform pol­i­cy or gain Home­land Secu­ri­ty or ICE appropriations.

Look­ing at the num­bers, it is easy to see why the pri­vate-prison indus­try is eager to expand into immi­grant deten­tions. Accord­ing to ICE Pub­lic Affairs Offi­cer Gillian Brigham, in fis­cal year 2009, ICE detained 383,524 indi­vid­u­als, with an aver­age dai­ly pris­on­er pop­u­la­tion of 32,098 spread across the nation’s 270 immi­grant deten­tion centers.

Due to the ris­ing num­bers of immi­grant deten­tions in recent years, cou­pled with the ris­ing tide of eco­nom­ic short­falls at both the state and fed­er­al lev­el (ICE report­ed a $140 mil­lion bud­get deficit for fis­cal year 2010), ICE has farmed out the oper­a­tions of many of these facil­i­ties to either coun­ty oper­a­tors under inter-gov­ern­ment ser­vice agree­ments (IGSAs) or to pri­vate-prison con­trac­tors who oper­ate the facil­i­ties on a per diem, per inmate basis.

Cur­rent­ly, sev­en of these facil­i­ties are con­tract deten­tion facil­i­ties” (CDFs) owned and oper­at­ed by either CCA or Geo Group. How­ev­er, accord­ing to Brigham, ICE uses sev­er­al types of facil­i­ties for immi­grant deten­tion, includ­ing coun­ty or state-owned jails and pris­ons con­tract­ed out by ICE under IGSAs, and ser­vice pro­cess­ing cen­ters,” which are facil­i­ties oper­at­ed by both fed­er­al and pri­vate deten­tion staff. 

An exam­ple of one of these IGSA enter­pris­es would be the nation’s largest immi­grant deten­tion facil­i­ty, the Willa­cy Coun­ty Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter in Ray­mondville, Texas. This jail, though owned by the coun­ty, is oper­at­ed by Man­age­ment and Train­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, a Utah-based pri­vate prison man­ag­er. Con­sist­ing of sev­er­al mas­sive dome-like struc­tures, the Willa­cy Tent City” can ware­house more than 3,000 immi­grant detainees await­ing depor­ta­tion at any giv­en time. 

How­ev­er, accord­ing to Brigham, ICE does not keep tabs on who is oper­at­ing these deten­tion cen­ters at the state or coun­ty lev­el through IGSAs, so it is dif­fi­cult to assess how many of these facil­i­ties are run by pri­vate firms. In addi­tion, ICE is not the only fed­er­al agency to con­tract out immi­grant deten­tion beds to these cor­po­ra­tions. The deten­tion of undoc­u­ment­ed aliens, who are con­vict­ed of a crime and must serve a sen­tence before depor­ta­tion, is also farmed out to pri­vate-prison con­trac­tors through the Bureau of Pris­ons and the U.S. Mar­shals Service.

Under­stand­ably, Geo Group and CCA are opti­mistic about their industry’s future. They plan to expand oper­a­tions or fill thou­sands of deten­tion bed inven­to­ry sur­plus­es” around the coun­try (includ­ing in Ari­zona) in response to what these cor­po­ra­tions refer to as organ­ic growth oppor­tu­ni­ties.” The dri­vers of this growth include the increase of immi­grant deten­tions and the inabil­i­ty of the fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments to meet deten­tion needs due to bud­getary constraints.

In May, dur­ing the Geo Group’s first-quar­ter investor con­fer­ence call, a prospec­tive investor asked Geo CEO George Zoley what impact Arizona’s immi­gra­tion law might have on busi­ness. Zoley respond­ed with lev­i­ty: What? They have some new leg­is­la­tion? I nev­er heard about it. I think I’m increas­ing­ly con­vinced of their need for 5,000 new beds.”

Wayne Cal­abrese, Geo Group’s chief oper­at­ing offi­cer, offered a more straight­for­ward appraisal. 

I can only believe that the oppor­tu­ni­ties at the fed­er­al lev­el are going to con­tin­ue at pace as a result of what’s hap­pen­ing. I think peo­ple under­stand there is still a rel­a­tive­ly low thresh­old of tol­er­ance for peo­ple com­ing across the bor­der and those laws not being enforced,” Cal­abrese said. And that to me at least sug­gests there are going to be enhanced oppor­tu­ni­ties for what we do.”

Beau Hodai, a for­mer In These Times Staff Writer, is the founder of DBA Press (dba​press​.com), an online news pub­li­ca­tion and source mate­ri­als archive.
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