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Ashish Kapoor

Ashish Kapoor

Over the past few months, we have seen the Syrian refugee crisis intensify and impact countries as far away from its shores as Germany and Austria. Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the recent conflict and an estimated 4.25 million have been forced to leave their country.

We watched as refugees walked hundreds of miles in search of safety, only to be greeted with tear gas and water cannons. We watched with horror as the body of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy washed ashore off the Turkish coast.

But the current refugee crisis — involving more displaced families than we’ve seen since the Second World War — isn’t just isolated to the European Union. It is happening closer to home.

When Pope Francis addressed Congress in September, he pointedly reminded American policy makers that “on this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

In 2015 alone, 30,000 migrants, mostly mothers and their children, have been apprehended at the U.S. border. Many are fleeing an area known as the “northern triangle,” which includes Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Rampant gang violence, trafficking, and police corruption have turned these countries into some of the most dangerous in the world, especially for women and children.

Treated more like criminals than victims

Much like Syrian refugees, refugee women and children from Central America who flee to the United States have no choice. To escape kidnapping, rape, and murder, women and children are making the hard trip north. Shockingly, 60% of the women and girls are raped on the journey itself. When they finally make it across the border, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks thousands of these mothers and children away in remote, privatized family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas, where they are treated more like criminals than victims. ICE outsources management of these family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, to the two largest, private prison companies in the country — The GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The role of private prison companies in immigrant detention is growing in disturbing ways. In 2009, Congress created the “detention bed mandate,” requiring ICE to detain 34,000 immigrants across the country at all times. From 2009 to 2015, private control of these detention centers jumped from 49% to 62%, vastly increasing the number of immigrants placed in the care of these companies. Today, GEO and CCA operate nine of the 10 largest ICE detention centers in the United States and reap the profits: The companies’ joint annual revenue is now $3.3 billion.

In the summer of 2014, responding to a steady increase in the numbers of women and children seeking refuge in the U.S., ICE began detaining these survivors of violence and paid over $350 million to CCA and GEO to manage their care. In the same time period, both CCA’s and GEO’s stocks increased at more than five times the S&P rate.

“Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand,” Alex Friedman, a well-known investor with shares of GEO and CCA, told CNN.

GEO makes its agenda perfectly clear.

In a recent SEC filing, it explained that changes in immigration laws could weaken its business model. To continue their growth, private prison companies know they must also gain political influence. The companies spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts to influence immigration policies that benefit shareholders at the expense of immigrant families. By providing funding to politicians that back increased detention of immigrants and refugees, lobbying for funding of detention operations, and informing GEO and CCA shareholders that particular changes to immigration laws would hurt the company’s bottom line, private prison companies have become an increasingly negative force in the lives of immigrant women and children.

Well-documented, dismal conditions

A little boy in detention in Texas suffers from an untreated rash. Photo from congressional tour in June 2015.

A little boy in detention in Texas suffers from an untreated rash. Photo from congressional tour in June 2015.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan agency established by Congress, released a searing report documenting extensive abuse within privately run detention centers in the U.S. The report included 200 claims of sexual abuse upon detainees in ICE custody, data on 138 detainee deaths, and evidence of staff threats of physical harm and separation of children from mothers who reported the horrendous facility conditions, including spoiled food, undrinkable water, and access to medical care that is so dismal that a child vomiting blood went untreated for days and a 7-year-old girl with brain cancer was kept detained and without medicine.

Why does the government outsource the care of immigrants and refugees in this way?

It’s difficult to argue that the existing detention scheme saves taxpayer money. A Department of Justice report found that contracting out facilities to private companies resulted in minimal savings. Meanwhile, detention has cost taxpayers $2.8 billion since 2006 and has given private companies inappropriate influence over human lives and humanitarian obligations.

Advocates have argued for alternatives to detention, such as release on parole and other cost-saving and more humane methods of managing a traumatized refugee population. But ICE has instead adopted use of electronic ankle monitors for many families. While these represent an improvement over living in a jail, and can save taxpayers $1.44 billion per year, we must take into account the impact on women and children.

Many mothers suffer extreme discomfort or burns, and are unable to find jobs due to the stigma surrounding the bulky ankle monitors.

It’s no surprise that the primary ankle monitoring company, BI, Inc., is a subsidiary of GEO itself.

Another alternative advocates sought was a community-based approach to supporting victims and refugees to enable them to find housing, medical care, and legal assistance through the refugee adjudications process. After intense pressure, ICE released a Request for Proposal to provide community-based services to released detainees in five major cities: LA, NY, Miami, Chicago, and DC/Baltimore. The $11 million grant could have funded community organizations, and experienced non-profits and advocacy groups submitted exhaustive proposals, optimistic that ICE was finally taking the needs of immigrant families into account.

But in late September, ICE announced the winner of the contract: a subsidiary of The GEO Group.

We desperately need bipartisan support for legislation that eliminates private investment in family detention, ends the bed quota, and provides humane services for traumatized mothers and children. By placing profit over humanity and justice, the privatized detention scheme in America undermines our moral authority and adversely affects women and children escaping violence.

It is unjust, unfair, and un-American, and it needs to end.

Featured Photo Illustration: Via Shutterstock