Published on
The Baltimore Sun

Jailing Illegal Immigrants — Good for Business?

Mary Sanchez

Here's a tip on a surefire investment: prisons.

Or, more specifically, companies operating them for a profit. Long considered a solid business, prison management is expanding as the U.S. government seeks help in warehousing a special category of prey: immigrants being ordered out of the country.

This niche market prospered in the Bush years. The federal government spent $9 million on hunting fugitive immigrants in 2003, according to a new study by the Migration Policy Institute, but by last year the budget for such efforts had mushroomed to $218 million. In five years work, $625 million was spent, and the government captured 96,000 immigrants, the report found.

And all of this chasing down of immigrants meant that new places had to be found to keep them. On the average day, some 33,000 immigrants are held in detention.

Not all the facilities being built to detain immigrants are nice places to stay.

Like in the movies, inmates can find themselves sentenced to "the hole." A German immigrant was allegedly kept in such isolation and later died, apparently in part as a result of an untreated staph infection. More than 80 immigrants have died in U.S. custody in the last five years. Detainees in Texas immigrant prisons have rioted recently in reaction to a lack of medical care.

Who are these immigrants, and why are they in prison? More than three-quarters of the captured immigrants in the period studied by the Migration Policy Institute had no criminal convictions. Some immigrants who are held in detention are families, people who have applied for asylum in the U.S. to escape horrors in their own countries and await hearings on their pleas. Several prisons are dedicated exclusively to immigrant families, and more are in the planning stages.

If all of this makes you a little queasy, good! You have a conscience.


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Used to be, many immigrants were allowed to remain free until they could appear before an immigration judge and have their case determined. Problem was, too many people determined to be in the country illegally simply never left.

About five years ago, immigration officials announced an intention to crack down on these people. Initial efforts were to focus on immigrants with criminal records. That sounded reasonable enough.

"Fugitive apprehension teams" were set up through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). More than 100 such teams exist now. But when the teams couldn't meet their quotas for criminal immigrants captured, the net was widened. Increasingly, raids were conducted at businesses, rounding up more people.

ICE has drawn a fair amount of fire for the hardball tactics and insensitivity of its sweeps. Immigrants were herded like so many cattle and charged after having less than adequate access to interpreters. To their credit, immigration officials in recent years have made changes in response to valid criticism. For example, babies are no longer separated from their immigrant mothers after workplace raids.

As problematic as illegal immigration is to the country, some of the "solutions" are coming with tremendous ethical implications. And it's not clear how a privatized detention industry plays into this. Its business model depends on there being lots of immigrants to lock up. Will the proliferation of for-profit cell space also make it that much harder to reform our immigration laws that have helped contribute to the numbers of illegal immigrants in the nation?

With plans for more private detention sites still in the works, it's an open question whether the immigration policies of the Bush administration will carry on under President Barack Obama. A good way to approach the immigration problem would be to rework the numbers allowed legal entry, to control the borders better and to find a way to legalize those undocumented immigrants who have otherwise been good citizens. Those changes, in addition to deporting those with no valid reason to stay, would substantially decrease the illegal immigrant population, nipping the need for new prisons.

But if Mr. Obama is committed to change, he'd better act fast. Because good intentions are one thing, but uprooting entrenched government contractors is another.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her e-mail is

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