In April, the Trump administration launched a zero-tolerance immigration policy that subjects everyone who crosses the border without prior authorization to possible criminal prosecution. This policy applies even to people who have a legal right to enter in pursuit of asylum. So far, the policy has separated more than 2,500 children from their parents, who are either waiting for a criminal hearing or have already been deported. This punishment is a disproportionately cruel response to mostly misdemeanor charges and largely meted out to people exercising their legal right to seek asylum.
In response to public outrage over his policy, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 20 stating that it is the policy of this administration “to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together.” Imprisoning entire families is not an appropriate or a viable solution; it is inhumane, ineffective, and unnecessary. Yet the administration has proposed giving billions of federal taxpayer dollars to for-profit companies to implement this immoral policy.
Trump administration proposes an unprecedented expansion of resources for jailing families
Prior to the enforcement of this administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) submitted a fiscal year 2019 budget request to Congress for 2,500 beds to detain families at three facilities. Private prison companies run the two largest facilities: The GEO Group Inc. runs the Karnes County Residential Center; and CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, runs the South Texas Family Residential Center. DHS’ contracts with private prison companies include fixed prices, meaning that the companies are paid regardless of whether the beds are used. This creates an incentive for DHS to fill available bed space regardless of its actual need.
Two days after the president issued his executive order, DHS posted a request for information on the cost and provision of adding up to 15,000 beds to detain families—whether that means by renting existing beds or constructing new facilities. At a cost of $318.79 per bed per day, this sixfold expansion of current capacity would mean the government would pay $5.6 million per day to jail families seeking asylum—an annual cost of more than $2 billion. This is nearly the entire cost of the president’s FY 2019 detention bed budget.
Because the administration is not proposing to shift resources from general detention to family detention, this represents a near doubling of detention resources. And the entire amount would likely go to private prison companies—which currently run 71 percent of immigration detention beds—including the two largest and newest of the three existing family detention centers.
Private prison companies do not operate in immigrants’ best interests
In addition to spending enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to detain immigrants, private prison companies have been associated with providing substandard care to those in their custody. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that inadequate medical care was a contributing factor in half of the deaths that occurred in these detention centers. A report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that, at higher rates than at other, public facilities, private prisons failed to adhere to detention standards around health care; protect LGBT people from abuse; provide nutritious food in sufficient quantities; and enable access to legal services. Many also did not comply with standards to prevent and respond to sexual assault.
The return on investment for private prison companies is even more significant when it is compared with the amount of money these companies contributed to the Trump campaign. GEO Group Inc. has contributed large amounts of money to President Trump since the 2016 election. During the election, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of GEO Group Inc., gave $225,000 to the pro-Trump political action committee Rebuilding America Now. As a result, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, arguing that it is illegal for an entity receiving a federal government contract to contribute to a political campaign. In response to the lawsuit, GEO Group Inc. claimed that “although GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., the company that made the donation, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GEO Group, it is a non-contracting legal entity and has no contracts with any governmental agency.” The complaint has not yet been resolved. Furthermore, GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic contributed $250,000 each to the president’s inauguration. In addition to these contributions, GEO Group Inc. even relocated its annual conference to a Trump-owned resort in Boca Raton, Florida.
The power of private prison lobbying
The Trump administration needs Congress to fund any expansion of detention beds, so unsurprisingly, GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic have contributed heavily to the campaigns of some members of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
Given the massive expansion of private prison companies’ lobbying efforts, as well as the number of requested and allocated detention beds for both individuals and families, this lobbying is paying off. One step to ensure that private prison companies are not unduly influencing the appropriations process is to bar members of Congress from accepting contributions from special interests with business in front of the legislative committees on which they sit. This means that private prison companies such as GEO Group Inc. would be prohibited from donating campaign cash to members of the committees that fund and oversee them.
There is no legitimate reason for the Trump administration to separate children from their parents or jail families together. For comparison, the Obama administration’s Family Case Management Program cost taxpayers just $36 dollars per day and ensured that all immigrant families checked in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and reported for court dates. The program also allowed families to stay together—and did not subject them to the traumatic experience of being jailed. Yet despite its 99 percent effectiveness rate, the Trump administration terminated it barely a year after it was launched.
Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars to reward private prison companies, the Trump administration should protect children from the trauma of family separation and family incarceration. The Trump administration created these expensive and inhumane policies—and it can easily end them in order to pursue humane and effective alternatives.
Sharita Gruberg is the associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.