Having flexed their muscle in November’s elections, Latino voters momentarily had Republican elected officials, especially in Arizona, falling over themselves in an effort to appear more friendly to the state’s Hispanic communities. Infamous sheriff Joe Arpaio, when announcing his intention to run for reelection in 2016, made an effort to reach out to Latinos in Maricopa County. Five days after the election, Governor Brewer announced that she was “fine and dandy” with the idea of immigration reform (before quickly backtracking). And Senator John McCain told Fox news that, in order to create a “bigger tent,” Republicans “have to do immigration reform.”
These remarkable developments had many advocates of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) feeling as if the wind is at our backs, and that CIR will finally be a reality in 2013. Those advocates, however, would be wise to keep in mind, especially now, the fact that the fight for immigrants’ rights in the United States involves addressing the continued consolidation of corporate power in this country, and won’t be won simply by leveraging the minimum number of congressional votes for a least-common-denominator CIR package. Nor will it be won without a significant change in our public discourse about jobs.
Perhaps the best example of the connections between immigration policy and the pervasive power of corporations in U.S. involves the enormous rise in the last decade of private prisons that house immigration-related detainees. Such prisons have boomed since 2005, when then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff proclaimed an end to “catch and release” in favor of “catch and return”–where apprehended undocumented immigrants would be detained until their deportation hearing. Between that announcement and the end of 2011, the number of ICE detention beds beds grew 85% from 18,000 to 33,000, and the ranks of immigrant detainees industry wide has doubled to about 400,000. Nearly half of those detainees are held in private prisons, and the percentage of U.S. immigrant detention beds that are operated by private companies has tripled since 2002.
At the center of the expansion of private prisons in the U.S. are the two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc.–both of which have more than doubled their immigrant-detention revenues since 2005. To maintain that revenue flow, both CCA and GEO stepped up their lobbying game, spending at least $45 million on federal and state lobbying activities over the last decade.
Connections between CCA and Arizona’s government are particularly insidious. Former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini sits on CCA’s board of directors, and CCA in 2011 had 22 registered lobbyists in Arizona, the most prominent of whom was Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants and a senior political adviser to Governor Jan Brewer (Coughlin also served as Brewer’s campaign manager in 2010). NPR exposed CCA’s connection, through ALEC, in the drafting of SB 1070 (a September 2012 report in the Nashville Business Journal ties them to the movement of copycat legislation in their home state of Tenessee). And CCA won a significant prisons contract with the State of Arizona in 2012, after a legislative change made it no longer necessary for private prisons the prove they could be run more cheaply than a public one (CCA is paid $65.43 per detainee, whereas the cost of detention in public facilities was determined to be 48.43).
If this picture of a conspiracy at the top of Arizona’s political pyramid seems too nefarious to be true, it’s because it is. Which is not to say there is not something rotten at the top; instead, it is to say that the feat could not have been pulled off without a direct, consistent, and ultimately persuasive appeal to the popular rhetoric of job creation. Indeed, while some proponents of private prisons point to cost savings as the main benefit (see for example this recent op ed by Glen Hamer, President of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce), CGA’s own press strategy is centered around the company’s success as a job creator in Pinal County, in south central Arizona, where CCA is now the largest private employer. But they are not alone in making this appeal. A 2010 independent financial impact report compiled by the Arizona real estate firm Elliot D Pollack and Company declared that a new CCA facility in Pinal would create “hundreds of permanent career opportunities in a fairly recession-resistant industry.”
And how could anyone disagree? For years, cash strapped towns in Pinal county have competed with each other to attract private prisons. As Jess Knudson, Deputy Town Manager of Florence, AZ told Chris Kirkham, “we’re one of the few towns in Arizona that has been able to stay in the black with this recession.” Instead of cutting services like other Arizona cities and towns, Florence — which has a prison population of more than 17,000, plus 7,800 residents outside of prison — has been able to increase services for seniors, and to build skate parks, dog parks and little league fields throughout town.