Although he was married to a U.S. citizen, ICE considered him a flight risk and locked him up in 2009: first at a private detention facility run by CCA in Gainesville, Ga., and eventually at CCA's Stewart Detention Center, south of Atlanta. Guzman spent 19 months in Stewart until he was finally granted legal permanent residency.
"It's a millionaire's business, and they are living off profits from each one of the people who go through there every single night," said Guzman, now a cable installer in Durham, N.C. "It's our money that we earn as taxpayers every day that goes to finance this."
The federal government stepped up detentions of illegal immigrants in the 1990s, as the number of people crossing the border soared. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring many more illegal immigrants be locked up. But it wasn't until 2005 — as the corrections companies' lobbying efforts reached their zenith — that ICE got a major boost. Between 2005 and 2007, the agency's budget jumped from $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion, adding more than $5 million for custody operations.
Dora Schriro, who in 2009 reviewed the nation's detention system at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said nearly every aspect had been outsourced.
"ICE was always relying on others for responsibilities that are fundamentally those of the government," said Schriro, now the New York City Correction Commissioner. "If you don't have the competency to know what is a fair price to ask and negotiate the most favorable rates for the best service, then the likelihood that you are going to overspend is greater."
Private companies argue they can save Americans money by running the centers more cheaply.
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO, said in an email his company supports public-private partnerships which "have been demonstrated to achieve significant cost savings for the taxpayers." He declined to answer specific questions.
But ICE Executive Associate Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations Gary Mead said the government has never studied whether privatizing immigrant detention saves money.
"They are not our most expensive, they are not our cheapest" facilities, he said. "At some point cost cannot be the only factor."
One fundamental difference between private detention facilities and their publicly-run counterparts is transparency. The private ones don't have to follow the same public records and access requirements.
President Barack Obama has asked for less detention money this year and encouraged the agency to look at alternatives to locking people up. He also ordered DHS to stop deporting young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally, which could reduce the number behind bars. Congress, however, can approve more detention spending than DHS requests.
Beyond civil detention centers, private companies are also making more money locking up non-citizens who commit federal crimes.
To deter illegal border crossers, federal prosecutors are increasingly charging immigrants with felonies for repeatedly entering the country without papers. That has led thousands of people convicted of illegal re-entry, as well as more serious federal offenses, to serve time in private prisons built just for them.
A decade ago, more than 3,300 criminal immigrants were sent to private prisons under two 10-year contracts the Federal Bureau of Prisons signed with CCA worth $760 million. Now, the agency is paying the private companies $5.1 billion to hold more than 23,000 criminal immigrants through 13 contracts of varying lengths.
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.