The Business of Criminalizing Immigrants

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The Business of Criminalizing Immigrants​

February 2019

Jade Vasquez

By Jade Vasquez (@jadedeev)
Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador

In the week before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump told a crowd of Wisconsin supporters, “As we speak, the Democrat [sic] Party is openly encouraging caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to violate our laws and break into our country.” The President isn’t the first to try to turn fears of criminality to tangible gain; past presidents, CEOs and investors in the private prison industry have been doing it for decades.

The construction of the criminal immigrant relies on the same strategies politicians used to justify mass incarceration of African American men. In his 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush exploited Americans’ fear of crime by featuring Willie Horton, a young black man who escaped prison and brutally assaulted a white couple, in an ad that called for tougher criminal justice policies. Nearly 30 years later, Donald Trump echoed this tactic in a 2015 campaign speech that promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump stated that the majority of immigrants arriving from Mexico were criminals.

The federal government’s exploitation of the criminal immigrant myth to secure votes and pass national anti-immigrant legislation draws from state-level success. Since 2001, state politicians have justified the mass detention of immigrants by asserting that it is a measure of national security. In 2005, 300 immigration-related bills were introduced in state legislatures. By 2009, that number had increased to 1500 across 44 states. New state laws sought to criminalize key aspects of undocumented immigrants’ daily lives. Alabama’s HB56, for example, required schools to report the immigration status of their students and allowed police to racially profile suspected immigrants.  Similarly, Arizona’s SB1070 required police to demand the papers of anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally and allowed them to perform warrantless arrests.

Over the last decade, state laws have made it easier to arrest and detain immigrants.  The more arrests, the more need for detention centers to accommodate the growing population of immigrant prisoners. Under the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which calls for the criminal prosecution of any border crosser, the number of detention facilities is expected to grow.

For years, government agencies have partnered with private prison companies like the CoreCivic and Geo Group to expand detention capacity. Since 2003, approximately 2.5 million immigrants have passed through immigration detention, with 62% of detention beds owned by private prisons. Private prison companies understand that stricter criminal justice and immigration laws are good for their bottom line, so they have utilized their immense wealth to influence politics and legislation.

Between 2002 and 2010, three of the largest prison corporations donated over $7 million to state and federal politicians’ campaigns. When the Department of Justice announced that it would scale back on private prison contracts in August 2016, the GEO Group responded by donating  over $200,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. Since then, the industry has further enhanced its involvement in politics by spending millions of dollars in lobbying to promote immigration detention and deportation issues.

Private prison companies’ memberships with organizations, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization whose indicated mission is to advance conservative principles through government and business partnerships, have also been critical for increasing revenues. Arizona’s infamous SB1070 law was originally conceived and drafted in an ALEC meeting. Of the 36 legislators who cosponsored the bill, two-thirds attended the meeting where it was written, and in return received generous campaign contributions from CoreCivic and Geo Group.

The powerful influence private prison companies have on immigration legislation make it increasingly difficult for viable immigration reform to occur. While the criminalization of newcomers may be a successful business model, the policing of these communities has had devastating consequences.

Since 2003, 179 detainees in ICE custody have died, as a result of inadequate healthcare, downgraded mental health screenings, and a series of human rights abuses that occur in detention centers.

But migrants have begun to speak out. In June 2018, members of the first migrant caravan that arrived in April wrote an open letter condemning the abusive practices of a private detention facility. In the document they describe crowded conditions, forced labor practices, spoiled food, and daily threats from guards. In their letter, detainees remind Americans, “We come fleeing to this country, not because we want to, but because we come looking for help (asylum)… in our countries we are… exploited… and discriminated.” Unfortunately, for many of these newcomers, they encounter much of the same in the United States.


Jade Vasquz is a first-year Master of Global Policy Studies student and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She previously worked as a Program and Research Associate at Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that designs and supports public high schools for recently arrived immigrants. She also served in the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Specialist in rural El Salvador. Jade is interested in studying U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and exploring the relationship between the U.S. criminal justice and immigration systems. After graduation, she hopes to continue her work in international development, conflict resolution, immigration advocacy, and criminal justice reform in the public or nonprofit sector..

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