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Privatisation of services for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants - USA

Feb 28, 2017

Countries provide welfare and administrative services for asylum seekers and refugees but increasingly, these, like other public services, have been subject to privatisation and other forms of Public –Private Partnerships (PPPs). This chapter examines the privatisation of services in the United States.

The involvement of the private sector in the provision of services for migrants and refugees has been expanding over the last 20-30 years in many countries. In some countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, the privatisation of these services has been taking place for long enough to show not only the poor quality of services and of working conditions but the long term effects of privatising services which were traditionally part of welfare services. The recent increase in refugees has also led to new business opportunities for companies, many of which are providers of other public services such as prison services or social care.

This chapter examines the privatisation of services in the United States.

United States immigration statistics

Source: Global Detention Project, 2016

The United States operated immigration detention in the 19th and 20th centuries but by the 1950s most centres had been closed. A new phase of immigration detention started with the Reagan government in the 1980s, when there was a strong policy of arresting and detaining migrants. Detention centres were opened in Puerto Rico and the US mainland. After the overturn of a mandatory detention policy towards Haitians, in 1986, the government passed the Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA) which led to increased detention of migrants from many countries. 11 The immigration detention system has grown since then. By 2014, $2 billion per year was spent with $5 million on detainees per day.

Immigration detention centres are closely linked to the prison system, often run by the same companies and, supposedly, working to the same prison standards. In addition, immigrants are subject to prosecution and so become criminalised, further blurring the boundaries between immigration detention and prison. The number of unaccompanied child migrants has grown to 52,539 in 2014 and new ‘family residential centres’ have been opened to house women and children. 12

In 2009, Senator Robert Byrd, the Chairman of the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Homeland Security added an extra sentence to the 2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act which stated “funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” 13 Senator Byrd was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan and was a strong supporter of detention for undocumented migrants. As the sentence was added to wider legislation, there was no public debate. In 2014, Congress made it a legal requirement for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to maintain a set number (34,000) of immigration detention beds whether or not there was a demand for them.1⁴ In the

last couple of years there has been a decrease in the total number of people in immigration detention with the daily population falling from 33,000 to 26,000.

As the number of immigrants detained increased after the 1980s, so did pressure on the existing centres and the government started to outsource the management of facilities to the private sector. By 2015, 62% of facilities for the Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) were run by the private sector. Of the dedicated immigration facilities, only one was not outsourced. Private companies provide food, security, health care and other services.1⁵ Although there is extensive privatisation of services for immigrants, a report found that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had limited expertise to administer the immigrant detention system and so was unable to effectively assess which services should be contracted out and their performance. 1⁶

Two of the main companies involved in running immigration detention facilities are Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). By 2014, these two companies were responsible for 45% of the US detained immigrant population. 17

Geo Group revenues


The Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corporation set up in 1987) runs prison and detention centres as well as community based services for offenders and immigrants (Geo Care) in the United States and internationally.  86% of its revenues come from government contracts. Continued government business is essential for the company’s future. The Geo Group has been subject to complaints about poor and inadequate staffing, poor working conditions, high turnover of staff and falsification of business records. 1⁸

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) revenues

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was set up in 1983 and now owns 66 prisons and manages an additional 10 detention centres. It registered as a Real Estate Investment Trust in 2013 for tax purposes because it owns and manages prisons and other detention facilities. TransCor is a subsidiary of CCA which provides transport services to government facilities. Over 97% of its revenues come from federal, state and local contracts. It is indebted in 2015 to $1,464 million, which is slightly less than annual revenue. 1⁹ The CCA has been criticised for reducing workers’ pay, limiting access of detainees to health care and ignoring safety and sanitation standards. 2⁰ 21

Both these companies are very dependent on government contracts. Following the introduction of quota for immigration detention beds of not less than 33,400, the private sector has benefited from these arrangements. 22 Prison private companies lobby on immigration and detention issues that affect their business models. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10,560,000 on lobbying with $9,760,000 spent on

the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Sub-committee. 23 Both companies are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a strategic partnership of 200 corporations and 2,000 state legislators, which writes and promotes prison industry-friendly legislation. 2⁴ In 2013, both companies were part of a lobbying campaign which defeated an initiative which would have given 11 million undocumented people legal status. 2⁵ This illustrates how lobbying by companies shapes the legislation which directly affects the rights of refugees and migrants.

Geo Group and CCA have expanded their services for immigration detention to include the ‘Family residential centres’ for women and children. 2⁶ A survey by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies (2015) found that in immigrant detention centres there was a high incidence of sexual abuse of women detainees, women were forced to deliver babies when restrained, hunger strikes, treatment of medical conditions with inappropriate medicines and problems with gaining access to legal advice and other groups. 27 The conditions in one family detention centre in Artesia, New Mexico was described as a “due process failure and humanitarian disaster’. 2⁸

The experience of privatisation of immigration services including detention facilities, in the United States, has shown that two private companies dominate the provision of services. The existence of legislation that sets a minimum number of detention beds has contributed to the expansion of private sector provision.

The dependence of companies on government contracts results in extensive lobbying of government departments and other policy making arenas. There are consistent complaints about abuse and the delivery of inadequate services.

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