The Minnesota International Relations Colloquium invited U of M alumni Roxanne Doty to present on her new research regarding the detention of immigrants on September 24th. Doty and her colleague Elizabeth Wheatley are in the process of investigating what they call the "immigration industrial complex." Immigrants currently constitute the fastest growing population in federal custody.
Doty is an assistant professor at the Arizona State University and has focused this research project on Arizona communities, especially Eloy and Florence. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest employer in Eloy. Florence is also home to several prisons.
The prison industrial complex refers to the dramatic increase in incarceration as the private sector exerted more and more influence over prisons, from owning and operating them to political lobbying. This shift from public to private responsibility for and control over the prison system has raised a number of concerns, including overcrowding and the criminalization of difference. Doty and Wheatley believe that a similar trend might be appearing with regard to immigrant detention.
At this time, 17% of all immigrant detainees are held in privately owned facilities, but over 50% are held in privately run facilities owned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or other government agencies. Under the Obama administration, the sheer number of deportations has increased and the criminalization of immigration has also become more robust.
There are three types of detention facilities that immigrants are commonly held in: contract, service processing, and inter-government service agreement. Contract facilities are owned and operated privately. Service processing facilities are owned by ICE, but most are operated privately. Inter-government service agreement facilities are centers that are owned by cities or counties. ICE contracts with these local governments. Oftentimes, though, the local governments then subcontract with the CCA or other private corporation. Private prison companies also lobby heavily. CCA alone spends over $1.8 million per year on lobbying.
One argument frequently put forth in favor of the expansion of prisons is that such expansion is said to increase job opportunities. The criminalization of immigrants, though, actually has a negative impact on local economies. Local economies are often heavily dependent on the labor of undocumented immigrants.
The blurring of the distinction between public and private is of particular interest to Doty. Channels of power and accountability are more readily apparent in the case of publicly run prisons. It is possible that privately run prisons could be efficient, more transparent, and better serve local communities, but the opposite is also possible. However, without further empirical study, we won't know with any certainty.
Whether or not the changes we have witnessed in immigrant detention recently correspond to an immigrant industrial complex, these changes do have significant implications for the current political environment and are very real concerns for those communities that depend on immigrant workers.
Written by Whitney Taylor.