Private Prisons + Undocumented Immigrants = Big Corporate Profits
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,”
The poem inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty takes on a sinister undertone when read in light of what the private prison industry is lobbying Congress to do. One can imagine Mr. Burns rubbing his fingertips together and reciting it to Smithers. In my recent expose outlining the overall private prison system, I explained how the industry has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress over the past decade to keep a historically unprecedented number of non-violent offenders behind bars for as long as possible and doing menial labor for as little compensation as possible. The industry’s recent lobbying has focused particularly on members of the Gang of 8. These Senate leaders, currently locked behind closed doors trying to hammer out an agreement on immigration reform, have received hundreds of thousands in political donations, along with other important members of Congress, particularly Republicans. Many of them have recently become more hawkish on criminalizing migration infractions.
“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
The CEO of CCA also recently assured investors that regardless of what happens with immigration reform, there would continue to be “a strong demand” “for bed space” in the private prisons.
Prosecution of immigration infractions now costs more and consumes a greater caseload than any other type of federal prosecution. More people are locked up for nonviolent border violations than any other type of federal crime. This surge in immigration incarceration follows the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 implementation of kneejerk, ad hoc measures to secure—and securitize—the border. In 2005, these measures gained an institutional cogency in the form of Operation Streamline. The Department of Homeland Security instituted Operation Streamline to seek to prosecute all illegal border crossings, and issue criminal sentences rather than deportations or civil penalties. Immigration prosecution doubled between 2005 and 2008. Tens of thousands of nonviolent men, women and children currently languish in federal prison for the crime of being here while foreign. The federal government outsourced much of this incarceration load to the private prisons. These facilities are hotbeds of well-documented anarchy, abuse and sexual violence. A report on Operation Streamline by the Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity and the Berkeley Law Center for Research and Administration concludes that it is ineffective, costly, unjust and should be eliminated. The private prison industry is seeking to hijack immigration reform to expand the Operation.
The fact that members of Congress are actually considering complying with this underscores how disturbingly broken our system is. Criminalizing undocumented migration makes zero sense. The only argument for it seems to be that ‘they’ ‘steal’ ‘our jobs.’ But actual empirical evidence demonstrates that this vacuous assertion is mist-thin. In 2011, Alabama implemented an incredibly draconian anti-illegal immigration bill. Up to 40% of the states’ migrant agricultural laborers fled the state, fearing deportation. Since then, farm owners have been unable to fill their vacated jobs. Even in dire economic circumstances, the average American is unable or unwilling to do the grueling work of picking tobacco, for example. Alabama ‘freed’ itself of ‘illegal aliens’ at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business, crops withering on the vine as far as the eye can see, and skyrocketing food prices. The longer this goes on, the greater the economy will slump. As agriculture collapses, the technical and mechanical industries that support it collapse. Service industries support the technical industries, banks support the services, etc., etc. Criminalizing migrant farmers for profit or demagoguery is dangerous social and economic insanity.
America needs to approach immigration reform in the understanding that these undocumented migrants are the bottom of the pyramid of the American economy. Unless we’re going to hire migrant workers to build a 700-mile long wall to keep out migrant workers, there will always be migrant workers in America. Immigration reform should not cast people who live in the shadows doing menial labor for a pittance into cages doing menial labor for virtually nothing. Apart from being grossly unjust, private prisons also drive down the bottom of the job market, lowering wages and killing jobs, while costing taxpayers and overburdening state budgets. Migrants are the bottom of the pyramid, but that doesn’t mean the private prison industry can confiscate them and force to build a pyramid to the personal deification of corporate shareholders. Congress should not be up to its elbows in socio-economic alchemy experiments in converting supply and demand into predator and prey in America. Corporations have no right to eat poor people for lunch. And our elected representatives should not be serving them up on a platter.
As immigration reform heats up, we need to keep Congress and corporate lobbyists under a microscope. Any sign that Congress is about to author a bill that expands the prison industry’s privileges to cage nonviolent human beings, and we should be on the phone with our representatives and hitting the streets. If Congress produces a large bill for the president to sign, it is likely to codify a framework for immigration policy for a generation or more. Any plutocratic measures that Congress sneaks into the bill are likely to be normalized for the foreseeable future. If Congress tries to sell the American people on an immigration “reform” bill that yields to the private prison industry’s demands for greater demand for nonviolent prisoners, then we should demand they include a rider that the Republicans in the Gang of 8 have to personally extinguish Lady Liberty’s torch and ship her back to France.
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