Just like its neighbor to the west, Arizona has an opportunity to stand up to profit-driven immigrant detention centers that operate with impunity in its communities.
California Gov. Jerry Brown this month signed the Dignity Not Detention Act, which freezes the growth of detention centers in California by barring cities and counties from entering into new contracts or expanding existing ones.
It is easy to dismiss California’s policies as liberalism run wild — and I know that Arizonans have little patience for Californians telling them what they should do — but this was no easy fight.
With nearly 4,000 people in immigration detention, California has the second largest detainee population after Texas and advocates were up against powerful for-profit prison companies and law enforcement groups, but they prevailed.
Arizona is right behind California, having the third largest detainee population. I invite Arizonans not just to consider the well-documented abuse these immigrants face inside those walls, but also the rampant profiteering on human bodies that is subsidized by our tax dollars.
The United States operates the largest immigrant detention system in the world, imprisoning upwards of 400,000 people a year under a mandated lock-up quota of 34,000 people on any given day.
Two-thirds of people in detention in the U.S. are held in private prisons. This inhumane system carries a massive burden on taxpayers.
According to an ACLU report, in 2008 the two largest private prison companies — CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and GEO Group — received a combined $307 million from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. By 2015, that figure more than doubled to $765 million. A recent USA Today report found that since election day, GEO Group and CoreCivic’s stock prices have increased by 63 percent and 81 percent, respectively.
Business is good. And it is big business in Arizona.
A report published in the Star found that between 2013 and 2016, ICE spent $136.2 million at CoreCivic’s detention center in Eloy, where 15 detainees have died since 2003.
Immigrant detention cost U.S. taxpayers about $2 billion in 2015, according to the nonprofit group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement. Those figures will surely rise as this administration seeks to expand these prisons and essentially criminalize every immigrant, including those without prior convictions.
Detention centers hold people for civil matters, including asylum seekers, legal permanent residents and human trafficking victims, who are awaiting hearings in backlogged immigration courts. They are refused court-appointed attorneys and can languish there for years, as companies reap the benefits.
There are humane alternatives that wouldn’t hinder enforcement efforts. The forms of supervised release that are common in our criminal justice system would save lives and money. But when prisons are big business, you need people to imprison.
A new bill in Congress, known as the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, would freeze the expansion of these for-profit prisons and create standards for medical care, basic living conditions and legal services. It’s a common-sense approach that would reform the system while uplifting individuals in it. It deserves our support.
But in this current political reality, legislation like this is a long shot against a Republican Congress and an administration that is determined to expand this abusive system. Efforts in Arizona will surely face far more resistance than in California.
Even so, there is momentum to be seized here, and an opportunity for Arizonans who oppose this unchecked cruelty and massive waste of taxpayer dollars to let their elected officials know that they’ll no longer stand for it.