October 24, 2016
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Immigration Law Means $$$ For Private Prisons

 New America Media, News Report, Khalil Abdullah

WASHINGTON – While public attention has focused on state policies toward immigrants -- namely, Arizona’s controversial immigration law  – federal authorities have for years criminalized border crossers. The federal policy called Operation Streamline, initiated in 2005 by the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, moves the prosecution of undocumented immigrants from civil to criminal courts and ultimately to deportation. The program’s success in curbing illegal immigration is still debatable, but if there has been one beneficiary, it’s the for-profit prison industry, according to a report recently released by Grassroots Leadership.

Bob Libal, a co-author of “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande,” presented findings at a panel hosted by the Open Society Institute in July. He noted that since 2005, an estimated $1.2 billion in federal dollars -- in Texas alone -- have been funneled into warehousing the undocumented in predominantly for-profit private jails and detention centers, while they await trial or serve sentences prior to deportation. 

In 2002, according to the report, 2,770 immigrants were sentenced to prison for crossing the border without authorization in two Texas districts along the border. In 2009, that number soared to 44,517. “The expanded criminal add civil immigration detention system has been a huge financial boon to private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and management and Training Corporation (MTC),” the report found. 

The sheer volume of cases also has become problematic from a fairness perspective. “Many critics of Operation Streamline have argued that the increased number of cases deprives lawyers of adequate time to prepare for cases, denying defendants the right to a fair trial,” according to the report. 

Prior to Operation Streamline, prosecution of undocumented immigrants was largely relegated to federal civil immigration authorities, not federal criminal courts. While ‘felony’ is associated with serious crimes like murder, armed robbery, or rape, the primary distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor is the length of time served. A crime warranting one year or more constitutes a felony. 

Under federal law, the maximum sentence for first-time entry by an undocumented person is typically 180 days. Most cases are prosecuted as misdemeanors resulting in fines, though there is a two-year maximum sentence even if entry is the sole offense. Under a separate provision of the federal law, those that re-enter the country are automatically convicted of a felony, and can receive up to 10 years.  With a criminal record, they will be virtually ineligible to legally return to the United States even when comprehensive immigration reform is enacted.

The criminalization shift has come to dominate federal court proceedings in southwestern border states. For example, Libal noted that in April of this year, “84 percent of all prosecutions in the Southern District of Texas, which includes Houston,” were a result of the two provisions of the federal law, as opposed to 54 percent nationwide in 2009. 

Operation Streamline and other federal initiatives to detain and prosecute undocumented immigrants are, however, bringing vocal resistance from local police officers. Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, said police chiefs feel their personnel and resources are being diverted from investigating serious crimes. He was critical of Arizona’s SB1070 and legislation proposed in other states that would allow officers to request identification for “reasonable suspicion” of a person’s undocumented status. “What the Arizona law is doing,” Williams said, “is requiring, as a priority, the enforcement of immigration laws.” 

Williams explained local police officials resent immigration enforcement as an unfunded mandate foisted on them by the federal government. The policy undermines community-centered policing, Williams said. Police officers, he said, have told him the undocumented “are definitely afraid of ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. They are definitely afraid of being deported,” and, therefore, they’re often afraid to step forward as witnesses to crimes. 

Williams said when elected officials and politicians began supporting harsher immigration enforcement methods and policies -- in part due to concerns after 9-11 about terrorist infiltration, local police officials were hesitant to voice misgivings about the negative effects on their departments’ capacities and community perceptions. Now, because local police chiefs are speaking out in opposition to the expansion of their immigration enforcement role, a task delegated to the federal government under the Constitution, Williams believes, “It’s very difficult for politicians to get up and say, ‘We’re going to crack down on immigrants.’” 

In explaining Congress’s failure to pass immigration reform, Angela Kelley, a vice president at the Center for American Progress, said both parties are “still very much hugging enforcement because that’s where they think the public mindset is.” While she acknowledged that laws like Arizona’s SB1070 have public support, she argued when researchers probe deeper into U.S. public opinion, they find concern by Americans, for example, over how immigration laws can divide families. Kelley said the public not only wants a solution to the immigration problem, it also understands “that you can’t enforce your way out of this problem.”

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