Zero tolerance is big business for US corporations. From private prisons to tech conglomerates, companies across the globe are scrambling for a piece of the pie. The Department of Homeland Security has awarded billions in federal contracts to surveil, detain, and terrorize immigrants.
Just a week after the 2016 election, stock prices for the nation’s two largest prison companies rose by nearly a third. In June 2018 they rose further on the assumption that they would benefit from the expansion of family detention facilities throughout the country amid the child separation crisis at the border.
Just what sort of company could bear to profit from the indefinite detention of children? Meet CoreCivic and GEO Group.
CoreCivic drew international scorn following the death of a toddler shortly after release from one of its detention facilities in May 2018. Mariee Newberry Juárez and her mother fled violence in Guatemala and were apprehended near the border. In immigrant detention, they were forced to sleep on the floor in a locked cage with some thirty other people. The young girl fell ill in the overcrowded detention center. Her fever spiked, and she began to vomit and suffer from diarrhea. A nurse cleared her for release without examining her. She succumbed to illness soon after and died just weeks before her second birthday.
CoreCivic has a long and storied history of scandal. In 1999, the Colorado Department of Corrections investigated the company on allegations of brutality, sexual misconduct, and drug trafficking. A 2011 audit of one of its facilities found violence, substandard medical treatment, and “unacceptable living conditions.” That same year, a second facility faced a class-action lawsuit due to allegations of sexual assault against migrant women in detention. In 2017, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on a separate facility alleging poor oversight and overcrowding. In 2018, the corporation was sued for violating human trafficking laws.
Not to be outdone, GEO Group has no shortage of scandals. In 2007, GEO settled a suit concerning a detainee who committed suicide following her rape within the facility. In 2013, inmates at a GEO-run correctional facility sued the state, alleging “barbaric and horrific conditions.” Incarcerees faced a desperate lack of medical and mental health treatment, lived in unsanitary conditions, and were subjected to excessive use of force. In January 2018, GEO Group settled a sexual harassment lawsuit to the tune of $550,000. In August of that same year, a federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit against GEO for wage theft.
How do these companies that just can’t stay out of the spotlight continue to win contracts from the government year after year?
GEO Group and CoreCivic have given nearly $9 million to political candidates and state parties over the past decade and a half, with an additional $3 million spent each year on lobbying. The two spent nearly half a million dollars on Trump’s candidacy and inauguration alone. Allegations of bribery and malfeasance abound. In November 2017, CoreCivic allegedly capitalized on Montana’s budget crisis to secure a renewal of their multimillion-dollar contract. In exchange for an extended contract, the corporation offered to return $34 million the state had placed in a “buy back” fund. That same year, the Mississippi state attorney general announced a suit against GEO Group for bribing Mississippi officials to secure lucrative contracts. Christopher Epps, former commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, was sentenced to nearly twenty years for accepting almost $1.5 million in kickbacks from companies seeking state prison contracts. GEO Group denies any wrongdoing.
CoreCivic and GEO Group have a designated occupancy guarantee, requiring states to pay steep charges if they fall below the required number of inmates. Some facilities are contractually guaranteed to be up to 96 percent full. To house a single detainee in a for-profit adult facility, the United States pays $148 per day. Contrast that with the $4 per-day cost for non-detention programs, and you can see where the state’s priorities lie. In 2018, ICE spent more than $800 million in taxpayer money on private detention centers. When mass incarceration is this lucrative, it’s little wonder that immigration arrests are skyrocketing.
It doesn’t stop there. Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 — which legal experts, almost without exception, have lambasted as legalized racial profiling — itself came into law by similar means. The law requires police officers to demand proof of immigration status in the face of “reasonable suspicion” when detained or arrested. An NPR investigation found that high-ranking officials from the Corrections Corporation of America attended the policy’s drafting. Of the thirty-six senators who cosponsored the bill, thirty received donations from prison lobbyists or prison companies. Arizona governor Jan Brewer also had links to the prison industry: both her spokesperson and campaign manager were former industry lobbyists. Four days after the bill hit her desk, it was signed into law. A month later, GEO Group had a conference call with investors. They cited immigrant detention as a growth opportunity. Hunting immigrants became a viable business model.
Tech companies, too, are seeing a significant windfall. Amazon made national news in October 2018 for pitching its facial recognition software to ICE. The proposal would allow ICE to track migrants in real time, vastly expanding ICE’s policing capabilities and signaling an end to refuge for migrants. As it stands, ICE has targeted immigrants trying to access medical care and homeless shelters. Armed with this technology, ICE could expand its surveillance powers tenfold, shadowing communities of color in perpetuity. This technology is so readily abused that even former ICE officers have expressed their concerns.
The complicity goes further. HP, Microsoft, Motorola, Palantir, and Thomson Reuters all have active contracts with DHS. ICE maintains a massive database to track and surveil immigrant populations. So vast is this infrastructure that IT spending makes up nearly 10 percent of DHS’s budget — the largest IT budget across the government. This extreme level of surveillance sets a precedent that opens the door to expanding mass surveillance further.
Though ICE is well entrenched, there are successes on which we can model our tactics. In June 2018, Google vowed not to extend its contract with the Department of Defense after a sustained employee backlash. Thousands of Google employees wrote an open letter condemning the company’s involvement in developing drone-combat technology, citing Google’s former motto: “Don’t be evil.”
Building on this victory, workers circulated open letters at Microsoft and Amazon calling on chief executives to end their immigration contracts. Meanwhile, immigrant rights organizers with Movimiento Cosecha launched their #NoBusinessWithICE campaign, urging supporters to boycott companies and institutions cooperating with ICE. As Cosecha organizers declare, anyone profiting from the agency is complicit in family separation and ICE abuses.
It is not only those who have direct contracts with ICE that reap the benefits. US businesses hiring undocumented workers offer dismal working conditions and wages far under the legal minimum, knowing workers are unlikely to complain for fear of drawing attention. Workers who do speak up pay the price. Businesses have been known to call ICE on employees who demand better conditions or suffer workplace injuries. Employers are using ICE as their personal enforcers.
So strong is the fear of workplace raids that the Department of Labor reports being unable to conduct workplace investigations. As one workplace inspector reported, “They’re not just refusing to talk to us. They’re running away from us.” Another Department of Labor employee reports undocumented workers refusing back wages owed to them in order to avoid any contact with the federal government. Employers benefit significantly from this climate of fear.
Critics say undocumented workers create downward pressure on wages across the board. But while immigrants are scapegoated, it’s businesses who won’t pay up. Curiously, those who argue that immigrants drive wages down often claim in the same breath that competition benefits everyone. More feasible than putting an end to human migration would be simply writing the problem out of existence. Amnesty would fix any downward pressure on wages by neatly eliminating this wage differential. If employers can’t exploit the vulnerable position of desperate workers, workers lose no bargaining power to new arrivals.
Academia, too, is implicated. Colleges and universities across the nation have contracts with ICE for a whole host of services. Northeastern University faced protests as the news of its $7,750,000 research contract came to light. Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, pulled in $6.5 million for leadership and tactical trainings. Students at both institutions have urged their schools to cut their contracts. They must keep the pressure up. Even terminating smaller, more mundane contracts — like leased parking spots — can disrupt ICE’s operations when such efforts are coordinated.