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When Immigrant Detention Leads to a Main Street Comeback

Once a community enters the industry, it is very hard to get out, and prisoners become a necessary commodity.
Private Detention Facility in Dilley, Texas

In July, The American Conservative ran an eye-opening article in which reporter Barbara Boland explored how lucrative the detention of immigrants has been for the private prisons that house “[t]he vast majority of people jailed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

Boland noted that the two major prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, have contracts with ICE totaling $280 million and $475 million, respectively. And with the average number of immigrants detained every day set to increase from just north of 44,000 last year to potentially as high as 60,000 in the near future, the windfall that these companies make doesn’t seem likely to level off anytime soon.

But private prisons aren’t the only ones with a stake in the immigrant detention economy. The small towns where immigration prisons are located, and public employees nationwide via their pension funds and 401(k) plans, have an economic interest in the continuation of immigration imprisonment as well.  

Many of America’s more than 200 immigration prisons are located in small-town America, and these communities view them as job-creating economic engines. They were brought in purposefully. In fact, over the last several decades, private prisons, including private immigration prisons, have been considered a “growth industry.” 

Take, for example, Karnes County, Texas. In 2010, the county, located about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, jumped at the chance to have GEO Group build a 600-bed immigration detention center just outside of Karnes City. This was in addition to an existing facility that GEO Group had run in the city since 1998.  

In the lead-up to the new detention center, a former Karnes County judge articulated the economic benefits such an arrangement would bring to the area. Speaking with NPR in reference to the 140 jobs the new detention center was set to bring and the estimated $150,000 in additional tax revenue those jobs would create, the former judge said, “I mean, that employment translates into other money being spent in the county.”  

More recently, Dwight, Illinois, considered an entrance into the immigrant detention industry. Earlier this year, the town of 4,200, located about 80 miles southwest of Chicago, was approached by Immigration Centers for America about the possibility of building a detention center in the town. A local leader in Dwight, Jared Anderson, shared his enthusiasm for the project. In an interview with WGLT, Anderson said, “You are looking at $60,000 a year salaries. That’s a good wage that would bring people into Dwight and give them an opportunity to have a house in town.” The project was expected to create 280 jobs.

University of Denver law professor and leading immigration legal scholar César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández outlines the full scope of this trend in his forthcoming book, Migrating to Prison. Writes García Hernández: 

We can think of immigration prisons as a jobs program. For economically struggling regions where good-paying, steady jobs are hard to come by, immigration prisons are the twenty-first-century version of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. …Only instead of hiring legions of unemployed workers to build important infrastructure and contribute to the nation’s historical and artistic stock, the federal government now hires some people to build prisons and others to keep them running.

The problem with viewing immigrant detention as a scheme for revitalizing rural towns is that it incentives the continuation of detention at all costs. Once a community enters the industry, it is very hard to get out of it, and prisoners become a necessary commodity.  

To illustrate the effect that this bottom-line thinking has, García Hernández quotes the former mayor of Raymondville, Texas, who, in the wake of a riot at the local immigration prison, voiced his concerns about the potential of the prison closing. “We need everyone to be employed,” said the former mayor. “We need those prisoners.”

While it is unfortunate that this type of economic analysis is a factor, small towns aren’t the only ones benefiting from the immigrant detention economy. Around the country, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of public employees are direct beneficiaries of immigrant detention via their pension funds and 401(k) plans that invest in CoreCivic and GEO Group.  

Last month, The Guardian reported that “at least 20 pension funds and plans have invested in Geo Group or CoreCivic….” The article pegged the amount of money invested in the two companies at $67 million, with the largest investments coming from the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPers) and New York State Teachers Retirement System (NYSTRS).

What this means is that everyday men and women, some of whom may be firmly against the very idea of immigration prisons, and many of whom would certainly object to profiting off of them, are doing just that. Their wellbeing in retirement hinges, at least in part, on the continued imprisonment of immigrants.

García Hernández, himself the child of Mexican immigrants, noted just how entrenched CoreCivic and GEO Group are in the American economy by admitting that he, too, through his Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) account, could very well be benefiting financially from immigration prisons. TIAA owns 234,000 shares of CoreCivic and 460,000 shares of GEO Group.  

All of this is before considering the myriad private investors and individuals who might unknowingly own shares in one or both companies through mutual funds, ETFs, or other financial instruments

For those unsettled by this, there are steps being taken to divest. One example is the Prison Industry Divestment Campaign, which, according to its website, was launched in 2011 by Freedom to Thrive in order “to address the root causes of harm to communities of color caused by the Criminal and Immigration System.” Currently the website for the campaign has a petition calling for the aforementioned NYSTRS to divest from the immigration prison industry.

As Boland mentioned in her article, CoreCivic and GEO Group spent millions in 2018 on lobbying, a clear sign that neither company has any plans to slow down. And with a president intent on detaining immigrants and many parties set to benefit, it seems safe to say that immigration prisons are going to be around for a while.

John Thomas is a freelance writer. His writing has appeared at The Public Discourse, The Federalist, and Christianity Today. Follow his work here



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