Private Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law

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NPR

Private Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law

by
Laura Sullivan

Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, pictured here at Tea Party rally on Oct. 22, was instrumental in drafting the state's immigration law. He also sits on a American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a group that helped shape the law. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Last year, two men showed up in Benson, Ariz., a small desert town 60 miles from the Mexico border, offering a deal.

Glenn Nichols, the Benson city manager, remembers the pitch.

"The
gentleman that's the main thrust of this thing has a huge turquoise
ring on his finger," Nichols said. "He's a great big huge guy and I
equated him to a car salesman."

What he was selling was a prison for women and children who were illegal immigrants.

"They
talk [about] how positive this was going to be for the community,"
Nichols said, "the amount of money that we would realize from each
prisoner on a daily rate."

But Nichols wasn't
buying. He asked them how would they possibly keep a prison full for
years - decades even - with illegal immigrants?

"They talked like they didn't have any doubt they could fill it," Nichols said.

That's
because prison companies like this one had a plan - a new business
model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona's
immigration law.

Behind-The-Scenes Effort To Draft, Pass The Law

The
law is being challenged in the courts. But if it's upheld, it requires
police to lock up anyone they stop who cannot show proof they entered
the country legally.

When it was passed in
April, it ignited a fire storm. Protesters chanted about racial
profiling. Businesses threatened to boycott the state.

Supporters were equally passionate, calling it a bold positive step to curb illegal immigration.

But while the debate raged, few people were aware of how the law came about.

NPR
spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign
finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they
show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona
Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the
private prison industry.

Arizona
state Sen. Russell Pearce, pictured here at Tea Party rally on Oct. 22,
was instrumental in drafting the state's immigration law. He also sits
on a American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a group
that helped shape the law.

Arizona
state Sen. Russell Pearce, pictured here at Tea Party rally on Oct. 22,
was instrumental in drafting the state's immigration law. He also sits
on a American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a group
that helped shape the law.

The law could send hundreds of thousands of
illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could
mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison
companies responsible for housing them.

Arizona
state Sen. Russell Pearce says the bill was his idea. He says it's not
about prisons. It's about what's best for the country.

"Enough
is enough," Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading
"Let Freedom Reign." "People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing
our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our
country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation."

But instead of taking his idea to the Arizona statehouse floor, Pearce first took it to a hotel conference room.

It
was last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. Inside, there
was a meeting of a secretive group called the American Legislative
Exchange Council. Insiders call it ALEC.

It's
a membership organization of state legislators and powerful
corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds
American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another
member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America - the
largest private prison company in the country.

It was there that Pearce's idea took shape.

"I did a presentation," Pearce said. "I went through the facts. I went through the impacts and they said, 'Yeah.'"

Drafting The Bill

The
50 or so people in the room included officials of the Corrections
Corporation of America, according to two sources who were there.

Pearce
and the Corrections Corporation of America have been coming to these
meetings for years. Both have seats on one of several of ALEC's boards.

Key Players That Helped Draft Arizona's Immigration Law

And this bill was an important one for the
company. According to Corrections Corporation of America reports
reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrant detention is their next
big market. Last year, they wrote that they expect to bring in "a
significant portion of our revenues" from Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, the agency that detains illegal immigrants.

In
the conference room, the group decided they would turn the immigration
idea into a model bill. They discussed and debated language. Then, they
voted on it.

"There were no 'no' votes," Pearce said. "I never had one person speak up in objection to this model legislation."

Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona's immigration law.

They even named it. They called it the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act."

"ALEC
is the conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group,"
said Michael Hough, who was staff director of the meeting.

Hough
works for ALEC, but he's also running for state delegate in Maryland,
and if elected says he plans to support a similar bill to Arizona's law.

Asked
if the private companies usually get to write model bills for the
legislators, Hough said, "Yeah, that's the way it's set up. It's a
public-private partnership. We believe both sides, businesses and
lawmakers should be at the same table, together."

Nothing about this is illegal. Pearce's immigration plan became a prospective bill and Pearce took it home to Arizona.

Campaign Donations

Pearce
said he is not concerned that it could appear private prison companies
have an opportunity to lobby for legislation at the ALEC meetings.

"I don't go there to meet with them," he said. "I go there to meet with other legislators."

Pearce
may go there to meet with other legislators, but 200 private companies
pay tens of thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like him.

As
soon as Pearce's bill hit the Arizona statehouse floor in January,
there were signs of ALEC's influence. Thirty-six co-sponsors jumped on, a
number almost unheard of in the capitol.  According to records obtained
by NPR, two-thirds of them either went to that December meeting or are
ALEC members.

That same week, the Corrections Corporation of America hired a powerful new lobbyist to work the capitol.

The
prison company declined requests for an interview. In a statement, a
spokesman said the Corrections Corporation of America, "unequivocally
has not at any time lobbied - nor have we had any outside consultants
lobby - on immigration law."

At the state Capitol, campaign donations started to appear.

Thirty
of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from
prison lobbyists or prison companies - Corrections Corporation of
America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.

By April, the bill was on Gov. Jan Brewer's desk.

Brewer
has her own connections to private prison companies. State lobbying
records show two of her top advisers - her spokesman Paul Senseman and
her campaign manager Chuck Coughlin - are former lobbyists for private
prison companies. Brewer signed the bill - with the name of the
legislation Pearce, the Corrections Corporation of America and the
others in the Hyatt conference room came up with - in four days.

Brewer and her spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

In
May, The Geo Group had a conference call with investors. When asked
about the bill, company executives made light of it, asking, "Did they
have some legislation on immigration?"

After company officials laughed, the company's president, Wayne Calabrese, cut in.

"This
is Wayne," he said. "I can only believe the opportunities at the
federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what's
happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are
going to have to be detained and that for me, at least I think, there's
going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do."

Opportunities that prison companies helped create.

Produced by NPR's Anne Hawke.

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