Little exemplifies neoliberal governance better than paying a consulting firm $20 million to identify ways to more efficiently deport poor people. According to a joint New York Times/ProPublica investigation published on Tuesday, however, that is exactly what the federal government has done—beginning with the Obama administration and continuing into the Trump era.
The report reveals exactly what kind of recommendations the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company made to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency tasked with detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In short: speed up the deportation process; cut costs on food and medical care for detainees and the maintenance of detention facilities; and redirect long-term detainees to cheaper (and more dangerous) rural county jails. For this, the company earned more than $20 million over the years before ending its relationship with ICE in 2018.
According to the report, McKinsey's ruthless search for "detention savings opportunities" disturbed even officials at ICE—hardly a bastion of humanitarianism. From the Times/ProPublica:
The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations—actions whose success could be measured in numbers—with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings.
In what one former official described as “heated meetings” with McKinsey consultants, agency staff members questioned whether saving pennies on food and medical care for detainees justified the potential human cost.
But the consulting firm’s sway at ICE grew to the point that McKinsey’s staff even ghostwrote a government contracting document that defined the consulting team’s own responsibilities and justified the firm’s retention, a contract extension worth $2.2 million.
After the Times revealed the existence of McKinsey's "management consulting services" contract with ICE last summer, the firm stopped its work for the agency (it now works for Customs and Border Protection, another branch of the U.S. immigration enforcement apparatus). While McKinsey had won the contract during the Obama administration, most of the work was done under Donald Trump, causing much consternation and controversy among the extended McKinsey community. In a note to former employees sent at the time, managing partner Kevin Sneader wrote that the firm "will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values."
This is true, to the extent that McKinsey's values begin and end with its ability to make money. It has a long history of working with shady companies like Enron along with authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia. The firm represents a sort of neoliberal amorality common among 1 percenters who don't want to own up to the consequences of their actions. Echoing Sneader's earlier note to McKinsey alumni, the consulting firm's statement on Tuesday's story was not exactly a denial, but a revealing evasion: "The scope of our work, contractually agreed to during the Obama administration, was designed to help the agency find ways to operate more effectively and cost-efficiently."
Pete Buttigieg, who worked at McKinsey but says a nondisclosure agreement prevents him from saying what he did there, has expressed shock and outrage that his former employer would involve itself in this kind of work. "As somebody who left the firm a decade ago, seeing what certain people in that firm have decided to do is extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing," he told reporters on Wednesday.
In this carefully crafted sentence, Buttigieg both deflects personal responsibility ("left the firm a decade ago") while also implying that McKinsey's contract with ICE can be reduced to individual people's bad choices ("certain people in that firm"), rather than the logical consequence of the neoliberal ideology that he shares, wherein citizens are treated like shareholders rather than political subjects—or even human beings.
To wit: yesterday, Buttigieg was asked whether non-citizens would be eligible for his "Medicare For All Who Want It" program. "I do think that everybody should be eligible to buy in to Medicare for all, who wanted the public plan," he said. "But I would expect that you'd have to be a citizen to qualify for subsidies."
Having obfuscated his actual position before embracing the standard neoliberal line on universal "access" to healthcare, Buttigieg, ever the consultant, here goes one step further: cutting costs for the national bottom line by denying care to immigrants. It is a reminder that the cruelty experienced by undocumented immigrants and their families at the border, in the interior, and in the detention centers is not only the result of racial animus but an ideology that includes such apparently disparate figures as Barack Obama and Donald Trump—and Pete Buttigieg, too.