Geo Group Protest
Protestors at a shareholder meeting of the GEO Group. Photo credit: © Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Wire

Congress Lavishes Money on Agencies Separating Kids

Democrats' Promises at Odds With Spending on Detention in Private Prisons


Why did Democrats buy into a for-profit system that locks up and brutalizes people seeking a new life?

How will the new House Democratic majority stop the abuse of refugees and immigrants — and families being ripped apart — after investing a record amount of taxpayer money to incarcerate them in private prisons?

In the bipartisan deal to keep the Federal government open until September, Congress approved an all-time record $23 billion for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that arrests, detains, and deports undocumented immigrants.  

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have since issued their first subpoena of Trump administration officials over family separations at the southern border — Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) calls it a “true national emergency” — but only after Democrats agreed to a record budget for the agency that wrenched children from their parents. Ted Deutch (D-FL), in a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, called the government’s 135 migrant shelters for kids “an unsafe environment.” He has released documents showing over 1,000 immigrant children were allegedly sexually abused while in government custody.

More People Will Die


ICE is getting money for 5,000 additional beds in its immigrant jails. A significant chunk of the funds will continue to be earmarked for the private prison companies that backed Trump’s presidential campaign. These companies already incarcerate more than two-thirds of jailed immigrants in facilities run as for-profit businesses.

“More people will die because more people are going to be in detention,” R. Andrew Free, a lawyer representing the families of immigrants who have died in ICE custody, told WhoWhatWhy. “Is it worth damning 5,000 people a night to lose their liberty, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars each night? Democrats at the leadership level made a decision that they were willing to shut the government down over a border wall… but not over the dramatic, 50% increase in adult immigrant detention and a five- to ten-fold increase in child detention.”

Wall or no wall, when the Trump administration calls the bipartisan spending agreement to avert a second shutdown a “victory” for his agenda — in the face of ridicule by mainstream media, anti-immigration members of Trump’s own base, and Saturday Night Live — it is not all spin.

Four first-time Congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) — issued a joint statement explaining their “no” vote. “By any reasonable measure,” they wrote, “Donald Trump’s weaponization of ICE and CBP has been a failure. The Department of Homeland Security does not deserve an increase in funding.”

Only 19 House Democrats voted against the spending bill increasing funds for immigrant detention. US Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who recently accused the Trump administration of “state-sponsored child abuse, and I would go as far as to say kidnapping of children,” reluctantly voted “yes.” So did Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), chair of the homeland-security appropriations subcommittee. “The negotiations on the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] funding bill were among the hardest I have experienced to date,” she said in a statement.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) was one of 19 House Democrats to vote against the spending bill increasing funds for immigrant detention. Photo credit: Senate Democrats / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Even in the midst of the government shutdown, ICE was aggressively expanding its detention network for immigrants and locking more of them up, using $10 million diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). ICE now jails almost 50,000 people on any given day in 200-plus facilities across the US. Over 400,000 immigrants were detained last year.

Who are these people? An analysis of data released in 2018 shows that most of them come from four countries — Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Sixty percent of the people in ICE detention had no criminal record. Another 20 percent had only committed minor offenses like a traffic violation. Many have settled and worked in the United States, sometimes for decades, and are the spouses and parents of American citizens. Others are asylum seekers for whom detention makes it far more difficult to win their deportation cases.

The number of incarcerated immigrants far exceeds the level authorized by Congress, which limits detention beds to 40,520. At one point, House Democrats tried to use Congress’s power of the purse to push a proposal for “smart, effective border security … consistent with our core values as Americans” that would have lowered the number of detained immigrants to an overall daily population of fewer than 35,000, roughly the level under the Obama administration.

In the end, most Democrats actually voted for an 11 percent increase, giving ICE a budget to lock up a daily average of 45,274 immigrants between now and the end of September. However, ICE can, by reallocating discretionary funding, increase the number to above 50,000, even as high as 58,500. The claim by Democrats that they voted for a “decrease” in the number of detained immigrants, while technically true, rings hollow.

ICE has a “blank check,” admitted Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA), chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, in a statement: “We were unable to effectively prevent DHS abuse of its transfer authority to increase detention beds.”

Shackles and Cages


While immigrants’ advocates have generally trashed the bipartisan spending deal, Democrats point to new limits they imposed on ICE in the 1,159-page, $33 billion bill.

Many unaccompanied migrant children cross the US border hoping to reunite with a parent or close relative. The new bill bans ICE from arresting potential sponsors of undocumented children based on information obtained from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (the agency that holds them) unless they have a felony conviction or charge.

Since April, ICE has been arresting and deporting undocumented parents, relatives, and family friends when they try to get children out of detention. A recent lawsuit accuses ICE of “enacting a policy to use detained immigrant children as bait to arrest immigrants who come forward to sponsor them.” The attorney in the case, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, calls it “another form of family separation,” and estimates “over 10,000 immigrant children are still stuck in detention for longer than ever before.”

The new bill allocates more money for alternatives to detention (ATD), presumably to drive home the point that there are cost-effective and humane ways of dealing with migrants and asylum seekers. It orders ICE “to prioritize the use of ATD programs for families, including family case management, for which the bill provides significant additional resources.”

A Family Case Management program, in which immigrant families were released and assigned caseworkers, was canceled by ICE last year. It cost $10 a day and was 99 percent successful in getting immigrants to ICE check-ins and court hearings. Electronic monitoring with an ankle bracelet costs $4.12 day.

There is specific language in the bill coming to the aid of migrant children locked in freezing rooms at the border, mothers prevented from sleeping with their young children, and pregnant women in handcuffs. “Facilities should be equipped with appropriate temperature controls,” it says, “and avoid fence-type chain-link enclosures” — in other words, no cages. Furthermore, “CBP is encouraged to use a more appropriate blanket type than is currently used.”

During back and forth negotiations over avoiding a second shutdown, the White House pushed hard to legislatively abolish the Flores Settlement, a federal agreement protecting the rights of detained children. President Trump has also tried to terminate Flores via an executive order. The class action settlement, dating to the 1990s, has the force of law and sets detention standards for migrant children in federal custody.

Peter Schey, director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (the only non-governmental organization allowed to inspect every facility where immigrant children are held) lobbied Congress to save Flores. Lawsuits based on the Flores Agreement, he told WhoWhatWhy “recently required the Government to provide mats for children otherwise forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, to stop feeding children frozen and outdated food, and to provide them with potable water and cups.”

The appropriations bill includes a ban on shackling pregnant women. Under the Obama administration, it was ICE’s policy to automatically release pregnant women from detention. Thanks to an executive order by Trump, a pregnant woman is now, like any other removable alien(s), subject to arrest and indefinite detention.

Immigrant Gulag


The bipartisan win for ICE serves as a reminder that Democrats have consistently voted for vast sums of money to lock up immigrants and create the world’s largest immigration detention system. The immigrant population behind bars is increasing exponentially even as arrests of undocumented immigrants on the US-Mexico border near historic lows.

Every presidential administration for the last 25 years has added to the population of America’s immigrant Gulag (under President Clinton, the number of jailed migrants actually tripled). Much of the existing ICE system was created under the Obama administration and handed over to his successor.

The system seemed tailor-made for Trump, who campaigned on a promise, not just to build a border wall, but to deport “2–3 million” people. On the same day he issued an executive order to build a border wall, he issued a companion executive order to justify mass deportations.

Since Trump took office, the average number of immigrants in detention on any given day has risen by more than 40 percent — but that is only the beginning. To meet its ultimate immigration objectives, the Trump administration needs an ever-expanding number of detention beds. The search is on for “enforcement beds” anywhere they can find them. Some of the additional funding could help pay for a new migrant detention center for 7,500 unaccompanied children that will be built on a superfund site contaminated with lead and arsenic.

Or the money could go to the for-profit Homestead facility in Florida, the largest detention facility for unaccompanied children in the country, which, incredibly, has no state license and is holding children in violation of a federal agreement designed to protect them.

ICE Arrest

Immigrant detention has been on the rise since President Trump took office. Photo credit: Department of Homeland Security / Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Business Opportunities


The day after the border deal was signed, George Zoley, CEO of private prison company GEO Group, discussed the potential profit on a conference call with investors. Would it “translate into business opportunities?” he was asked. Zoley said he is “hopeful,” because it will “likely” boost the number of people GEO incarcerates.

GEO controls the lives of almost 100,000 people in detention centers in the US, the UK, South Africa, and Australia. The Florida-based company has deep political connections to the Trump administration. GEO’s lobbying strike force includes Brian Ballard — who raised millions for Trump’s campaign and is now the “most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” — and two former aides to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Near the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Justice issued a memo instructing the Bureau of Prisons to phase out private-prison contracts, based on research showing they cost taxpayers more money and put inmates at risk because of medical neglect. GEO’s stock price spiked spectacularly after Trump’s Department of Justice reversed that decision. GEO won the Trump Administration’s first contract for a private prison, worth $457 million, to build and operate a 1,000-bed facility outside of Houston. In 2017, GEO expressed its appreciation by moving its annual leadership conference to the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami.

GEO has been a top contributor to Trump’s campaign, and, along with for-profit prison rival CoreCivic, donated generously to Trump’s inauguration. CoreCivic achieved a 935 percent increase in federal contract awards from 2016 to 2017.

If Not Now, in 2020?


When people think about immigration, 2018 will be remembered as the year the United States government separated migrant babies, toddlers, and teens from their parents at the US-Mexico border. But we now know, based on a government report, that there could be thousands of kids who were also separated from their parents during 2017.

“Compelling new evidence has emerged revealing that high-level Department of Homeland Security officials were secretly and actively developing a new policy and legal framework for separating families as far back as December 2017,” wrote Senator Merkley (D-OR) in a letter demanding an investigation by the Department of Justice. The evidence is a memo leaked to his office by a whistleblower showing how Trump officials strategized taking children from their parents at the border to scare families in Central America about migrating to the US.

Congress is also mandating more inspections of immigrant detention centers. But in the case of ICE, it is well-documented — by its own watchdog authority — that the agency has failed over and over to remedy problems revealed by inspections. The Department of Homeland Security oversees ICE through its Office of Inspector General (OIG), which has reported on conditions “that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.” In another report, the inspector general states flatly its inspections “do not lead to sustained compliance or systemic improvements.”

When the inspector general made an unannounced inspection in 2018 of Adelanto, a GEO-run facility in California — triggered by several suicide attempts and the deaths of three detainees — it found bedsheet nooses hanging in 15 cells as well as evidence of medical neglect and the abuse of detainees in solitary confinement. According to the report, “ICE’s lack of response to address this matter at the Adelanto Center shows a disregard for detainee health and safety.” Earlier inspections in 2014 and 2015 faulted the prison for failing to prevent sexual abuse and allowing a man with stomach cancer to go untreated.  

As ICE spins out of control, unaccountable to Congress or even its own government watchdog, it has entered ever deeper into unspoken partnership with private prisons that cut corners to profit from jailed immigrants. GEO Group is ICE’s largest contractor and top officials from ICE often get top jobs at GEO. Daniel Ragsdale, former ICE deputy director is GEO’s Executive VP for Contract Compliance. GEO’s Senior VP David J. Venturella was formerly ICE’s director for removal operations. When GEO was sued for human trafficking — for forcing immigrant detainees to work for as little as a dollar a day — Tracey Valerio, a former ICE official once in charge of “all agency contracting,” was a paid expert witness.

For the progressive Democrats, the spending deal represents a missed opportunity. Between now and 2020, the US will continue to hold record numbers of children, families, and individuals — who have not committed any crimes — in crowded, privately run detention centers. But immigration is shaping up to be a central issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker — all of them seeking the party’s presidential nomination — voted against the appropriations bill increasing funding for immigrant detention and deportations. Gillibrand told CNN she wants to “reimagine ICE under a new agency with a very different mission.”

The split vote in Congress — with progressives and presidential candidates digging in to defend the human rights of immigrants — shows that Democrats, seemingly unified in opposition to Trump’s immigration policies, are divided over what to do about them. It remains to be seen if the party can unite behind a strategy to fix a broken immigration system.

“There has been no serious attempt at immigration reform since 1986,” said Peter Schey. “The only efforts have been behind closed doors, the gang of eight, the gang of six. What this Congress needs to do, starting with the House Democrats, is set up a select commission on immigration and refugee policy that should hold hearings all around the country, to come up with something rational, humane, achievable and cost effective, just in time for 2020.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from fence by Pxhere (CC0)


  • Brent Gregston

    Brent Gregston has worked in Paris for Radio France International as well as for UNESCO (World Radio Day) and on news programs for kids in developing countries (Kids News Network). He has written for the Sunday Telegraph, Salon, and WIRED.

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