Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced a pilot case management program as an alternative to holding mothers and children in detention. The annual $11 million contract was awarded to Geo Care LLC, a subsidiary of the Geo Group—the second largest private prison company in the U.S. that operates the family detention center in Karnes, Texas.

Advocates expressed concern that ICE decided to reward a large contract, once again, to a private prison company. The growing call to end family detention has brought more attention to the flagrant abuses and systemic problems in privately – and government – operated immigrant detention facilities. Yet family detention is one part of a larger industry using taxpayer dollars to lock up immigrants. A recent report by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) chronicles the “abusive conditions and the persistent mistreatment of vulnerable populations” in detention and highlights the inherent problems with ramped up immigrant detention. The report states:

“DHS-ICE does not have the authority to incarcerate immigrants. Instead, its authority is limited to holding non-citizens during the adjudication and removal process. Yet the U.S. detention system has long operated like a prison system, but without the benefit of civil rights case law or the same levels of proficiency and professionalism as most correctional systems.”

In discussing the report’s findings, CMS Executive Director Donald Kerwin said, “in the vast majority of cases, the purposes of immigrant detention can be achieved through more effective, humane, and less costly alternative to detention programs (ATD).” With this understanding, ICE’s pilot program with Geo might seem like an ideal option. But the fact that a for-profit company will operate the program points to another problem highlighted in the report: private prison companies have aggressively expanded their presence in the immigration detention system. About 62 percent of detention beds are in privately-run facilities, according to a 2015 Grassroots Leadership analysis. When government functions are contracted to entities motivated by profit, oversight mechanisms are compromised. The report notes:

“ICE’s lack of expertise in administering the immigrant detention system has undermined ‘its ability to identify services for which it should contract, to oversee its contracts with states, localities, and for-profit prisons, to assess performance under these contracts, and to address deficiencies.’ Given the substantial privatization of the U.S. immigrant detention system, there is a particular need for robust government oversight to promote compliance with standards and to correct breaches of them.”

The involvement of private prison companies in immigrant detention was scrutinized last week, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) introduced the Justice Is Not for Sale Act. The bill calls for the elimination of private prisons in both the criminal justice and immigrant detention industries in an effort to take profit out of the equation. As Rep. Ellison said, “Private prison corporations spend millions of dollars lobbying government for harsher sentencing laws and immigration policy that serves their bottom line, while taxpayers foot the $80 billion dollar a year bill to incarcerate 2.3 million people.

As more research sheds light on the deeply rooted problems in immigrant detention, Congress and the Administration have the power to choose whether taxpayer dollars are used to implement responsible, humane, and effective immigration policies or to help companies turn a profit.

Photo by William Beem.