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Immigrant Bed Quota Ensures Profits, Not Safety | Letter to the Editor

By Lia Lindsey Prior to Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson’s challenge on the need for an immigrant detention bed quota to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana, others were talking about the policy and its influences, too — but not in the way he would have hoped.  

The American Friends Service Committee has been looking closely at the “bed quota” policy, the for-profit prison corporations have advocated for it, and the members of Congress who have accepted money from the industry while active in shaping immigration policy. We’re developing white papers and gearing up for Google hangouts to share information on the subject. Simultaneously human rights advocates met last week to discuss how to stop this immoral, arbitrary and costly policy.
When I read CQ’s May 4 article (Republicans Bedcheck an Immigration Detention Program) on Culbertson’s strident pitch for enforcing a bed quota, I tried (and failed) — to see his rational argument for maintaining this policy ensuring mass imprisonment of immigrants, given that I’ve yet to hear any strong argument in favor of it. Then I got it: he doesn’t have one. Or at least one that he can profess openly.  

The bed quota is a federal policy requiring that 34,000 beds in immigrant detention facilities be maintained every day — an arbitrary number based not on enforcement needs, but on the profit needs of the companies that contract to detain immigrants. Both Republicans and Democrats alike agree this arbitrary and costly policy should end. The quota is fiscally irresponsible, costing taxpayers in excess of $2 billion each year when alternative less expensive community-based programs have a strong track record of success. It also yields a high cost in human suffering when detainees are denied water, appropriate medical treatment, adequate nutrition, and physical safety. Since immigrants in community programs have a high rate of appearance at their immigration proceedings (the stated goal of detention) there’s no need for them to supplement to the quota, as Culberson would have.  

Guess who loses with community-based programs that keep families together, allow workers to maintain employment, and respect the right to freedom? For-profit prison corporations.  

The entire reason these corporations exist is to reap profits on keeping immigrants (and sometimes citizens, too) behind bars. Fewer immigrants in detention means less revenue for companies such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. Any reduction in people locked up is bad business — so they try to get a little help from their friends in elected office.  

Campaign contributions is one of the tools these companies rely on to try to influence elected officials to embrace policies that send more people into lockup alongside laws preventing them from getting out. I’m glad to see CQ highlighting recent campaign contributions from GEO and CCA that Culberson accepted. And those 2014 checks weren’t the only ones. Culberson has been taking money from this industry since 2008.
The million-dollar question is this: Did contributions from CCA and GEO influence his approach to immigration detention legislation? We’ll likely never know. But examining Culberson’s voting record is a first step.  

During the 2014 cycle in which he accepted $6,500 and $2,500 from CCA and GEO respectively, Culberson co-sponsored legislation that would’ve allowed the Homeland Security secretary to detain immigrants with temporary protected status — immigrants lawfully present in the U.S. — “whenever appropriate under any provision of law.” Additional provisions would have changed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to allow unaccompanied migrant children to be detained (in what are often prison-like conditions) and would significantly delay the deadline by which Health and Human Services would need to be informed about these apprehended children and transferred into its custody.  

In the current Congress, Culberson was an original co-sponsor of a bill calling on local law enforcement to shoulder federal immigration enforcement, on top of their already overwhelming obligations to their communities. There is ample evidence these collaborations do not make our neighborhoods safer given the fear of deportation if criminal activity is reported. In the end this policy would result in more immigrants arrested and funneled into the detention pipeline, even though many caught up in these programs aren’t a proven danger. Interestingly, the bill contains language giving special shout outs to private prison corporations, affirmatively stating that these private entities can be relied upon for immigrant detention services.  

The absence of meaningful dialogue in our democracy about the realities of immigration detention is cause for concern. It erodes the democratic process Americans hold up as the bedrock of our society.  

Culberson is one of many in Congress who have accepted contributions from private prison companies and supported policies like the bed quota guaranteeing a steady flow of immigrants to CCA and GEO. And it’s about time that the media tune in to the role of money in politics, where the siren song of corporations may drown out the voices of voters.  

Lia Lindsey is policy impact coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working to build peace with justice in the U.S. and around the world.

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