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The Business of Immigrant Detention


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:11 pm

More than 300,000 immigrants languish in detention centers around the country. Why are they there, and who is profiting from their imprisonment?

Pedro Guzman Perez speaks to his wife, Emily Guzman, by phone every evening. They speak around 8pm, a talk filled with stories about their days, shared projects and love. Sometimes their three-year-old son, Logan, wants to get on the phone too, but usually Logan will be watching a show in another room. They have a great relationship, Emily says, and the conversations are often the highlight of her day.

There are, however, some logistical difficulties. Pedro, a Guatemalan native who was in the country on a work visa, can only speak on the phone for 20 minutes at a time—precious little for a couple sharing the tumult of raising a three-year-old. Each phone card costs $5, and the already staticky connection is easily broken.

This is because Pedro is calling from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, an immigration detention facility where he has been detained for nearly 10 months. Many aspects of Pedro’s case led him to the detention center—two 10-year-old charges of marijuana possession, one of which has since been dropped; an administrative mistake by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to which they have admitted; the harsh record of his immigration court judge and even the patchy memory of an older woman whose answers in an immigration interview led the federal government to look into Pedro’s status.

But neither Emily, Pedro’s lawyer, nor the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) thinks these are enough to warrant keeping Pedro under lock and key, away from his family and with tax payers bearing the cost of his prolonged detention.

The Scope

Pedro is one of the 383,524 individuals detained by ICE while they await court dates, deportation, or bail. Detention is a key aspect of the federal government’s push to deport immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who have committed any crimes or misdemeanors.

More than 3.7 million immigrants have been deported since 1994, and in the past decade, immigration detention has tripled. In 2001, the US detained about 95,000 individuals, compared to the 380,000 detained in 2009.

Detention Watch, a national coalition of organizations working to educate the public about the US immigration detention system, called these measures extremely punitive for individuals going through a civil administrative process.

“US policymakers see detention and deportation as a politically salient ‘quick fix’ to broken immigration policies and to the complex issues of global and regional poverty and instability,” Detention Watch noted in a policy report. “Instead of recognizing and addressing larger economic and political structures that cause people to immigrate, politicians focus on interior and border enforcement as a way to repel people from migrating.”
It has been an administration policy across the aisle, with more people being deported per year under President Barack Obama than under his predecessor George Bush.

To the tune of strategies such as Operation Endgame, the March 2004 Department of Homeland Security’s 10-year-goal to “remove all removable aliens,” the nation now has 270 immigrant detention centers in which individuals picked up for immigration offenses are held.

The rise in immigration detention also has many critics pointing to a more sinister reason than political expedience or security fears—the profit that private prison corporations make from the detention of immigrants like Pedro.

Private Immigration Detention and CCA

One of the most notorious players is the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private immigration detainer. It runs Stewart Detention Center, where Pedro now languishes, and is the sixth-largest correction system in the country, behind only the federal government and four states.
At any one time, CCA houses about 75,000 offenders in more than 65 facilities in 20 states, about half of all immigrants currently detained in private

facilities. It shares its business with Geo Group, Cornell Company, and Avalon Correction Services, as well as several smaller companies.

In addition to detaining adults, CCA also detains children whose parents are being picked up for immigration offenses, housing them in centers such as the infamous T. Don Hutto Center in Taylor, Texas. In 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Hutto Center on behalf of 10 juvenile plaintiffs, arguing that they were receiving substandard education, medical care, and little privacy.

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