Custody or Calamity

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My wife and I attended a political event recently.  We knew many of the people in attendance.  We also had the opportunity to become acquainted with a few people we’ve seen at other unrelated functions but were never introduced.  It was a perfect time to introduce myself.  One of those conversations is what this post is about.

When it became clear to those meeting me for the first time that I retired from the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, I was asked a question I have answered several times over the last year.  “So, what do you think about what’s happening on the southern border?”  My canned answer is always the same – “What we hear about in the news is often not where we should focus our attention.  In this case we should pay more attention to the processes, procedures and regulations the administration is quietly rewriting.”  That is usually an answer that suffices for most.  Not this time.

The follow-up narrowed the focus – “I was thinking more specifically about the separation of children from parents on the border.”  I paused momentarily then decided not to get into an explanation of the Homeland Security organizational chart.  Instead, I settled in and took the plunge into a conversation about the framework of immigration detention.

When there is a zero tolerance policy regarding undocumented immigrants entering the United States that can only mean one thing – detention.  Translation: the prison industrial complex spawned during the clearly failed war on drugs has diversified.  My new friend, like many others, I assume, hadn’t quite made the jump from the “crisis on the border” to its connection to the prison industrial complex. 

Texas (15,852), California (6,527), Arizona (3,869), Georgia (3,717), and Louisiana (3,143) are the top five states with the largest number of people in U.S. immigration detention per day.

Freedom for Immigrants

Okay, I’ll tone it down momentarily for clarity only.  I won’t call them prisons.  Let’s called them facilities, detention centers or residential centers.  And if a person is lost or dies in the “facility/center”, let’s call that “in ICE custody”.  The simple reality is that these are not government facilities.  DHS personnel are not overseeing the day to day activities of that custody, a private corporation’s employees are.  So, essentially, the private company is who loses track of the detainee.  It is under the private company’s watch that a detainee dies.  At other times, detainees are held in state controlled facilities – unless the sheriff refuses (giving rise to what’s called sanctuary cities).  But let me be clear, that reality does not relieve DHS of its responsibility for the safety and physical accountability of the people they detain.

GEO Group, Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic are two of the private prison companies that design, build, finance, and manage many of the detention facilities where ICE detains undocumented migrants pending adjudication of immigration matters.  These companies likely receive the lion’s share of government contracts to house detainees.  Southwest Key Programs is one of the private companies that operates shelters specifically geared toward housing immigrant children under the age of 18.  All are for-profit companies, not government entities.  A valid question is how are the contracts with these companies managed by the Department?

Here is a further simplification of that reality.  Detention is segregated.  Female and male detainees are not housed together; minors are not detained with adults.  Detention facilities for families are specific for families.  When there is no bed space in a facility specifically designated for families, the result has not been release in this zero tolerance environment.  The family is separated.  Then you have to contend with the method for repatriation of separated families.  That may be directly affected by the method the private prisons use to keep track of detainees.  How long young children are held in ICE custody becomes an entirely different question to answer.

“. . . there’s a lot of money that we need right now to take care of people that are crossing the border appropriately and make sure we’re repatriating those that don’t have a right to stay in the U.S.” 

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan

When the broadcast media reports that DHS is moving undocumented migrants from the southern border to centers in Miami, Buffalo and Detroit, as we’ve heard recently, we must ask where these individuals will be housed.  Is the administration talking about placing detained migrants in state and local correction facilities?  That would certainly become a burden those jurisdictions could not support despite the fact that ICE may have detention agreements in place with them.  Will migrants moved from the southern border go to private prisons owned and operated by the for-profit partners the government has become so cozy with?

Kudos to Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan for braving the storm.  His recent statements on CBS’ Face the Nation were as straight forward as anyone can expect from a cabinet official.  He made clear that DHS is concentrating on housing detainees along the southern border and not moving detainees.  Secretary McAleenan spoke of partnering with DOD for supplemental space.  He also reported efforts underway with Mexico to have detainees wait for determinations in that country. Much of the information he presented was clear but I was skeptical about plans to build and use “soft-sided facilities” as an immediate remedy to the lack of beds for families.  What is that?  Is it soft-sided because it is temporary use of existing corrections facilities?  Or, is DHS constructing what I would call tent cities to house migrants awaiting immigration decisions?

The Secretary focused on the administration’s efforts to address detainee housing issues as well as those factors the administration believes drives the migration north to the Unites States.  Looking to the other side of the border is commendable.  However, when speaking about the department’s plans on this side of the border he references “sectors” and “stations” where detainees are in custody.  That wasn’t as transparent as it could be.  In all fairness, the interviewer didn’t seek clarification regarding those references.

It may not be clear to everyone that a sector is a geographic area and a station is literally a workspace, an office essentially.   In the interest of true clarity undocumented migrants aren’t housed in CBP sectors or stations.  The private prisons with whom DHS contracts are “located” in the sectors.   Federal employees assigned to specific government work stations within that geographic area process the detainees housed at those prisons.  That is what DHS personnel mean when they use a term like in custody or detained in sectors along the southern border.

Next, we should examine, for example, the $4.5 billion supplemental funding DHS is seeking from Congress to “create the facilities to protect children in custody”.  How much will go directly into the design, construction and management of new prison projects for companies like GEO Group, Inc., Correction Corporation of America/CoreCivic or Southwest Key Programs?  Is DHS seeking to create one or more facilities similar to the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, TX?  Will the funding simply support new contracts between the government and private prisons or will this supplemental funding create facilities owned and operated by the government?

These contract private prisons are part of a billion dollar business.  The New York Times reported in June 2018 that Southwest Key Programs won at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015 to run shelters and provide other services to immigrant children in federal custody.  Freedom for Immigrants, a 501(c)(3)non-profit organization in California, reported that federal government data shows that GEO Group receives more taxpayer dollars for immigration detention than any other ICE contractor. In FY 2017 alone, GEO Group received $184 million, followed by $135 million to Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic for immigration detention related services. You decide.  What do you think about what’s happening at the border?  Is the zero tolerance policy simply feeding the private prison industry?  Physically, where are these people being held?  Are they in open spaces . . . tents, private prisons?  Does the zero tolerance policy perpetuate the lack of bed space, thus, creating the crisis we hear so much about?  Does the number of young children account for the urgency and demarcation as a humanitarian crisis?  Or maybe you think the financial security of some major players in the private prison industry is the threatening crisis along the southern border.

It’s time for everyone to settle in and take the plunge into a conversation about the framework of immigration detention.