The day after the election of Donald Trump, shares for private prison corporations soared. Leading companies The GEO Group, Inc. and CoreCivic (formerly Correction Corporations of America) saw an 18 percent and 34 percent increase in stock prices, respectively. This comes after both companies suffered significant losses when the Department of Justice (DOJ) directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to begin phasing out the use of private prisons in August.
This cutback by the BOP was a blow to the industry, but these same companies still have contracts with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house thousands of immigrants in privatized detention facilities.
Following the DOJ’s announcement in August, which cited safety and security concerns at private facilities, immigration advocates called on DHS to consider a similar approach for immigration detention.
In response, on Aug. 29, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson asked the Homeland Security Advisory Committee (HSAC) to create a subcommittee to evaluate whether or not ICE “should move in the same direction” as the BOP. He asked the subcommittee to review the use of private prisons for immigration detention and “consider all factors concerning ICE’s detention policy and practice, including fiscal considerations.”
After an admittedly brief review of ICE contract facilities, including consultation with a number of representatives from the private prison industry, federal agencies and immigration advocacy groups, the subcommittee published a report which concluded DHS should keep using private prisons for immigration detention. Given “fiscal considerations, combined with the need for realistic capacity to handle sudden increases in detention,” the subcommittee said it didn’t see any alternative. The report also included 13 other recommendations on how DHS can improve private detention.
But one member of the six-member HSAC subcommittee, Marshall Fitz from the Center for American Progress, disagreed with the lead recommendation to continue using private facilities and wrote a footnote stating his opposition. While acknowledging that moving away from private prisons will take both time and resources, he suggested “a measured but deliberate shift away” from the current model because of “the inferiority of the private prison model from the perspective of governance and conditions.”
Following a lively debate at the Dec. 1 meeting, members of HSAC ultimately approved the subcommittee’s report. However, 17 of the 22 members present voiced their support of Fitz’ determination. This was both an unexpected and shocking turn of events, according to Joanne Lin, Legislative Council with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who was consulted for the report and was present at the meeting.
“I think everyone who was there in the meeting was shocked by the debate,” she says. “Usually these things are just rubber stamped but there was some very earnest, serious debate.”
Despite the overall approval of the report, “It was unequivocally clear, there was a vote on a singular issue and that singular issue was whether or not DHS should continue the use of private prisons,” Lin says. “And three-quarters of the council said they should not.”
This comes at a time of increased immigration detention around the country. According to DHS, there are roughly 41,000 immigrants currently in detention, up from the typical 31-34,000, due in large part to an influx of Haitians in recent years attempting to cross the southern border.
Following the devastating 2010 earthquake, DHS ceased deporting Haitians due to instability in that country. In 2011, deportations resumed, but only for those convicted of crimes. While conditions in Haiti have failed to improve over the last several years, the U.S. has seen an increase of Haitians arriving at the southern border, the majority of them without visas and many of them claiming asylum. In September, DHS Secretary Johnson announced the agency would resume regular removals of Haitians. And then in late October, he directed ICE to secure additional bed space for the growing number of Haitians attempting to cross the southern border illegally, despite the recent havoc left by Hurricane Matthew. Immigrant advocates claim ICE signed a new contract with The GEO Group, Inc. in early October, increasing the number of spaces per night at the Aurora, Colorado, facility from 525 to 925, with the intention of eventually raising the limit to 1,400. ICE officials failed to respond to questions regarding the contract.
“In the last month-and-a-half we’ve seen a doubling of the immigration detention population in Colorado,” says Mekela Goehring, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMAIN). “Certainly RMAIN sees first hand the impact that has on both the individuals that are detained as well as their family members’ lives and the daily tragedy of that.”
Goehring says there are currently 350-400 Haitians being held at the Aurora facility, whereas previously there were only a dozen or so on average. The majority of the current Haitian detainees are seeking asylum, after “harrowing journeys,” Goehring says. “It’s troubling to see that our country is detaining this very vulnerable population that is not a threat to the community and is seeking protection under existing U.S. immigration law.”
It remains unclear, however, how DHS will implement the majority opinion recommendation, if at all. In the end, Secretary Johnson is not bound to follow HSAC’s recommendations and he has yet to make a final determination about privatized immigration detention facilities.
According to ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez in an emailed statement, “ICE leadership will review and consider the council’s recommendations and will implement any changes, as appropriate.” She failed to distinguish and declined to clarify between the report’s recommendation and the consensus of HSAC members during the Dec. 1 meeting.
But with only six weeks left in office, Secretary Johnson is running out of time. He made it clear in his request for the report that time was of the essence, and as Lin from the ACLU concludes,
“He can’t just squirm out of this now. He’s got to figure out what he’s going to do.”