Commentary / World

Trump’s border policy making private prisons great again

by Ted Rall

The Washington Post recently published a revealing and heartbreaking story about forced separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents — not the Trump-ordered fiasco we’ve watched over recent weeks at the U.S.-Mexico border, but in the Midwest as the result of brutal ICE raids that have ripped families apart under U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him. It’s beautifully written, worthy of a literature award if not a Pulitzer for journalism.

One line leapt out at me: “Who benefits from this?”

Nora, an 18-year-old girl who lost both her parents to Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and is now raising her 12-year-old brother like something out of a dark 1970s ABC Afterschool Special or a Dave Eggers story, wondered why the U.S. government carries out such vicious policies and tactics, like using offers of free food to lure poor migrants into the clutches of heavily-armed immigration goons.

“Was it American taxpayers, who were paying to finance the raid and resulting deportations? Or American workers, most of whom were so disinterested in low-paying farm work that Ohio had announced a crisis work shortage of 15,000 agricultural jobs? Or Corso’s Nursery, a family-owned business now missing 40 percent of its employees?”

OK, so the canard about Americans being unwilling to fill low-paid agricultural jobs is transparent BS. The key phrase is low-paid. If all the illegal immigrants disappeared tomorrow the labor-market version of the law of supply and demand would force agribusiness employers to offer higher wages. Plenty of Americans would be happy to pick fruit for $25 an hour. Sorry, Corso’s — if you can’t afford to pay a living wage, you deserve to go out of business.

Still, Nora’s question is a good one. Whether you believe in open borders, want Trump to build The Wall or fall somewhere in between like me (build the wall, legalize the people already here who haven’t committed serious felonies, deport the criminals), everyone who cares about immigration should know the why and wherefore of how the U.S. government carries out deportations.

Contrary to what some liberals seem to believe, there is nothing unreasonable about border control. Determining who gets to enter your country’s territory, and who gets turned away, is one of the principal defining characteristics of a modern nation-state. Just you try to sneak into Latvia or Liberia without permission and see what happens. You can probably make it into Libya, but that’s because it’s a failed state.

After you catch illegal immigrants the question is, how do you deal with them?

Some countries, like Iran, deport unauthorized persons immediately, no due process. That’s what Trump wants to do.

Others treat them like criminals. Illegal immigrants caught in Italy face a hefty cash fine and up to six months in prison.

The United States falls in between. Applicants for political asylum are theoretically entitled to a hearing before an immigration court. Economic migrants receive no due process. Both classes face lengthy detentions before removal.

Lengthy detention is the key to Nora’s question.

So who benefits?

The answer is: America’s vast, secretive, politically connected, poorly regulated $5 billion private-prison industry.

“As of August 2016, nearly three-quarters of the average daily immigration detainee population was held in facilities operated by private prison companies—a sharp contrast from a decade ago, when the majority were held in ICE-contracted bedspace in local jails and state prisons,” writes Livia Luan of the Migration Policy Institute.

Crime rates have been falling for years. So prison populations have been declining too. Adding to the down trend has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Congress; Democrats and Republicans agree that we need criminal justice reform centered around shorter sentences.

Originally sold as an innovative market-based solution to alleviate overcrowding in government-run prisons and jails for criminals, the private prison sector had been facing hard times before Trump came along. Private institutions were sitting empty. Until two years ago, private prisons had been scheduled to be phased out entirely by the federal sentencing system.

Trump made private prisons great again.

According to the U.K. Independent newspaper, ICE arrests during Trump’s first nine months in office increased 43 percent over a year earlier. “Many of those immigrants are funneled into a multibillion dollar private prison system, where between 31,000 and 41,000 detainees are held each night.

In many cases, those private prison corporations — led by the behemoths GeoGroup and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America — have contracts with the federal government guaranteeing their beds will be filled, or that they will receive payment regardless of whether they have a full house on any given night.”

With profits guaranteed by pro-business government contracts, Wall Street is bullish on prisons for profit.

“The Trump administration’s tough-on-immigration policies are unlikely to fade anytime soon, meaning investors should expect continued strict enforcement, more arrests by ICE and the need to accommodate a growing number of arrested individuals,” an analyst advised investors.

That’s likely to continue. In a classic example of the revolving door between government and private industry, the CEO of GEO is Daniel Ragsdale, who left his post as No. 2 at ICE in May 2017. Talk about swampy: ICE is extremely cozy with for-profit prisons.

When your customer base is as disenfranchised, unpopular and defenseless as convicts and undocumented workers, it’s tempting to cut corners on costs for their care. Reports of abuse and neglect are even more widespread in the private prison sector than in traditional government-run lockups.

“The conditions inside were very bad. The facilities were old. The guards were poorly trained. If you got sick all they would just give you Tylenol and tell you to get back to your cell,” said Adrian Hernandez Garay, who served 35 months for illegal immigration at the Big Spring Correctional Institution, a Texas facility run by the private corporation GEO. He told Vice he was fed rice and beans seven days a week. He described Big Spring as “far worse” than other prisons where he was held.

Even if you think illegal immigrants are criminals who should be tossed out on their ears, you ought to be highly suspicious of the private prison industry. After all, they don’t want illegals deported. They want them housed indefinitely in their sketchy facilities. And you’re paying the bill.

Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, syndicated columnist and graphic novelist.