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Immigration and the prison industrial complex

In the past year, the struggle over immigration rights continued along a broad array of fronts.  There were significant setbacks, such as the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy that made asylum nearly impossible to attain.  But there were also victories, such as a federal judge’s ruling in November that required the government to provide health services to thousands of parents and children traumatized by the family separations carried out in accordance with the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

As we head into a new decade, it is useful to map the ongoing struggles in order to see the broader landscape of conflict, and there is one concept, that of the prison industrial complex (or PIC), that can help provide such a map.  The concept of PIC was developed by scholars and activists associated with the prison abolition movement, and the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance offers this clear definition:  “the prison industrial complex is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.”

If we look over some of the major battlefields involved in immigration, the concept of the PIC can help pinpoint major areas where corporate interests and government overlap. These include detention, surveillance, consulting services, and border wall construction.

With respect to detention, it’s important to note that 52,000 people are currently incarcerated in America’s detention facilities, and that about two-thirds of them are kept in for-profit facilities run by corporations like the GEO Group and CoreCivic.  The business in for-profit detention runs to about $3 billion a year, and the companies involved have made substantial campaign contributions ($1.7 million in 2016, $1.9 million in 2018).  They have also actively lobbied both federal and local officials for years.  The private detention facilities have been cited in numerous grievances and a number of reports for a wide range of abuses, including medical negligence, inedible food, and sexual assault and abuse.  Reports have continued to surface about deaths in detention of both migrant adults and children.

With regard to surveillance, there has been a growing awareness in the past year-and-a-half of the role that tech companies have played in identifying and tracking immigrants.  Particular attention has focused on the software company Palantir, which has a $38 million contract with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to provide data analytics and data case management.  It’s likely that these kinds of data services were employed in the kind of workplace raids carried out by ICE last August at companies in Mississippi.  Moreover, it should be noted that Palantir’s programs are hosted by Amazon’s web services subsidiary, and the ICE connections of both companies have been targeted for protest by both employees and activists.  Other tech companies, such as the software developer Github, have also been targeted for protests for their connections to ICE, and it’s likely that such protests will continue into the coming year.

Yet another corporate area continuing to exert influence over the implementation of immigration policy involves consulting services.  Major companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte Consulting, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and McKinsey & Company have contracted with ICE, and it is the latter which has gained the most notoriety for its connections.  McKinsey concluded a $20 million contract with ICE in July, 2018 amidst intense controversy over the family separations and other abuses associated with the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.  McKinsey consultants, it turned out, had recommended significant cuts in detention facilities for food services, medical care, and staffing.   It currently has contracts with Customs and Border Protection.

Finally, with many asylum seekers trapped in unsafe conditions in Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, it’s appropriate to include the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall as part of immigration’s prison industrial complex.  Of particular relevance is the recent decision by the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate the awarding of a $400 million contract to a North Dakota Company, Fisher Sand and Gravel, that Trump had personally lobbied for, despite the fact that it had never been awarded a construction contract before, and despite the fact that military officials had raised objections about the company’s standards.

Certainly, immigration’s prison industrial complex predates the Trump administration.  For-profit detention facilities date back to the early 1980’s, and surveillance and the fortification of the border have been going on for years.  But Trump has pushed government/industry relations more sharply into an anti-immigrant direction, using racist messaging to criminalize migrants and shrink asylum and immigration to new lows. 

As resistance to his policies continues, it will be helpful to invoke the concept of the prison industrial complex as a way of seeing the big picture.  The PIC offers a lens for seeing how any particular protest is related to a broader struggle on behalf of certain values and understandings:  that immigration is essential to the continued vitality of the nation, and that inclusion, enfranchisement, and human rights – not fear and criminalization – are keys to a democratic future.

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an emeritus professor (English, Nonviolence Studies) at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.