Private prison companies just hit the jackpot.
While attention was focused Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s orders to start building the border wall and cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, another aspect of his decree went mostly overlooked: Trump effectively gave the Department of Homeland Security carte blanche to expand immigrant detention.
His executive order authorizes the department to “allocate all legally available resources” to “establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” That means paying private prison companies like CoreCivic and the GEO Group to open new facilities to keep up with the Trump administration’s draconian “enforcement priorities” on immigration.
“It’s worse than we even imagined,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes private prisons. “It’s the policy manifestation of all the ugly bigotry that Trump spewed on the campaign trail.”
The Trump administration’s enforcement priorities, also outlined in Wednesday’s executive order, will likely ensnare hundreds of thousands of people, including asylum seekers who present themselves at the border, undocumented immigrants who have merely been accused of crimes but not found guilty, and others convicted of petty offenses like driving without a license. All of those people could end up being locked up indefinitely — and the current detention facilities are already at capacity.
“This is an enormous boondoggle for the private prison industry,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The people that will benefit from these executive orders are not American taxpayers but corporations that are making a killing off of jailing asylum seekers and other immigrants.”
The only catch is that Trump’s order limits Homeland Security to the use of “available resources.” It’s not quite a blank check because it doesn’t give the department any additional money to spend on detention beyond the $40.6 billion already allocated for the 2017 fiscal year, much of which has already been devoted to existing projects and other costs. Congress will have to decide how much more cash it wants to throw at expanding immigrant detention by the end of April, when the next budget is due.
The projected cost of immigrant detention under Trump’s plan is $35.7 billion, plus another $13.4 billion for “aggressive interior enforcement” and $11.3 billion for legal processing, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Stock market analysts have said Trump’s immigration agenda presents a “material external growth opportunity not seen in years” for the private prison industry. One investment research site forecasts a 25 percent spike in the value of the GEO Group’s stock this year.
That’s a complete reversal of fortune from last August, when the Department of Justice announced it would end the use of private prisons to house federal inmates after finding that they don’t save taxpayers money and are less safe than government-run facilities. Shares of CoreCivic and the GEO Group instantly plummeted 35 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
The GEO Group contributed more than $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC, and the company’s stock price spiked by 21 percent on the day after the election; CoreCivic’s soared by 43 percent. Together, the two companies account for 85 percent of the U.S. private prison market, and a majority of their revenue comes from housing immigrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is required by law to keep at least 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day, and about two-thirds of them are locked up in facilities managed by private prison companies.
Takei noted that the recent influx of Central American asylum seekers has already overwhelmed the immigrant detention system, leaving federal authorities struggling to find bed space for about 41,000 people. Private prisons stepped up to help meet the demand, and he expects them to attempt to further capitalize on the fallout of Trump’s executive orders in the coming months and years.
“It’s the realization of our worst fears about what this administration would do on immigration,” Takei said of Trump’s Wednesday decrees, adding that the ACLU would do everything in its power to stop the president from following through. “If and when these terrible unconstitutional ideas are implemented, we’re prepared to sue.”