By GARANCE BURKE and LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Locking up illegal immigrants has grown profoundly lucrative for the private prisons industry, a reliable pot of revenue that helped keep some of the biggest companies in business.
And while nearly half of the 400,000 immigrants held annually are housed in private facilities, the federal government — which spends $2 billion a year on keeping those people in custody — says it isn't necessarily cheaper to outsource the work, a central argument used for privatization in the first place.
The Associated Press, seeking to tally the scope of the private facilities, add up their cost and the amounts the companies spend on lobbying and campaign donations, reviewed more than 10 years' worth of federal and state records. It found a complex, mutually beneficial and evidently legal relationship between those who make corrections and immigration policy and a few prison companies. Some of those companies were struggling to survive before toughened immigrant detention laws took effect.
A decade ago, just 10 percent of the beds in the nation's civil detention system were in private facilities with little federal oversight. Now, about half the beds are part of a sprawling, private system, largely controlled by just three companies: Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp.
And the growth is far from over, despite the sheer drop in illegal immigration in recent years.
CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000 due to lawsuits, management problems and dwindling contracts. Last year, the company reaped $162 million in net income. Federal contracts made up 43 percent of its total revenues, in part thanks to rising immigrant detention.
GEO, which cites the immigration agency as its largest client, saw its net income jump from $16.9 million to $78.6 million since 2000.
At the same time, the three businesses have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the last decade, the AP found.
This seismic shift toward a privatized system happened quietly. While Congress' unsuccessful efforts to overhaul immigration laws drew headlines and sparked massive demonstrations, lawmakers' negotiations to boost detention dollars received far less attention.
CCA and GEO, who manage most private detention centers, insist they aren't trying to influence immigration policy to make more money, and their lobbying and campaign donations have been legal.
"As a matter of long-standing corporate policy, CCA does not lobby on issues that would determine the basis for an individual's detention or incarceration," CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email to the AP. The company has a website dedicated to debunking such allegations.
GEO, which was part of The Wackenhut Corp. security firm until 2003, and Management and Training declined repeated interview requests.
Advocates for immigrants are skeptical the lobbying is not meant to influence policy.
"That's a lot of money to listen quietly," said Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, who has helped lead a campaign to encourage large banks and mutual funds to divest from the prison companies.
The detention centers are located in cities and remote areas alike, from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark's airport, often in low-slung buildings surrounded by chain-link fences and razor wire. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detain men, women and children suspected of violating civil immigration laws at these facilities. Most of those held at the 250 sites nationwide are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, but some green card holders, asylum seekers and others are also there.
The total average nightly cost to taxpayers to detain an illegal immigrant, including health care and guards' salaries, is about $166, ICE confirmed only after the AP calculated that figure and presented it to the agency.
That's up from $80 in 2004. ICE said the $80 didn't include all of the same costs but declined to provide details.
Pedro Guzman is among those who have passed through the private detention centers. He was brought to the U.S. by his Guatemalan mother at age 8. He was working and living here legally under temporary protected status but was detained after missing an appearance for an asylum application. Officials ordered him deported.