Last Wednesday, Chick-Fil-A reportedly hit an all-time sales record. Hundreds of thousands of Americans—many of them evangelical Christians—proudly purchased a chicken sandwich to show their support for the restaurant chain, known by many Christians for the owners’ efforts to operate their business in ways consistent with biblical values. The crowds on Wednesday came as an expression of support for what many felt was a threat to religious liberty: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, unhappy with statements from Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy that expressed his support for a traditional “biblical definition of marriage” and his opposition to gay marriage, declared that “Chick-Fil-A values [were] not Chicago values” and suggested that Chick-Fil-A may not be welcome in Chicago. Evangelical and Catholic Christians, in particular, rallied to Chick-Fil-A’s defense, and throughout the country, they showed their support by lining up (in some cases, for more than an hour) to purchase chicken sandwiches and lemonade.
Like most evangelicals, I enjoy Chick-Fil-A food; before we had Chick-Fil-A stores in the Chicago area, I’d been known to switch terminals in the Atlanta airport layovers just to eat a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and I’ve had family members who have worked for the company. While those who disagree with the personal views of a company’s executive are certainly free to boycott, the suggestion by certain elected officials that they might keep Chick-Fil-A from operating in their cities would essentially be a governmental requirement to give up their religious convictions in order to operate a business, which to me seems to be a frightening precedent (as New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and the ACLU, strong supporters of gay marriage, agreed). Anyway, as a passionate proponent of immigration reform, I’m inclined to appreciate Chick-Fil-A (which has publicly called for Comprehensive Immigration Reform) and to be a bit peeved with Mayor Emanuel (who, as a leader of the House of Representatives, reportedly told other Democrats to vote for a terrible 2005 immigration bill that could have severely threatened a church’s ability to minister lawfully to immigrants SOURCE, and who once argued that immigration reform should be a second term presidential priority, which is why many of us have not been surprised that, with Rahm Emanuel as President Obama’s chief of staff, there has been no immigration reform in the first term).
I read another article last Thursday, though, that put the Chick-Fil-A pandemonium in a new perspective. The Associated Press ran an exposé on how our private immigrant detention system works. Many Americans do not realize that when our government detains an immigrant pending a deportation hearing—a process that can take multiple years in some cases—they actually are often being held by a private corporation. As a result of dramatic increases in immigration enforcement, the federal government (i.e., U.S. taxpayers; i.e., you) now spends more than $2 billion per year to detain more than 400,000 people. About half of the beds for detained immigrants are in privately-operated facilities, mostly operated by one of three companies: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. These companies make a lot of money, because the federal government spends an average of $166 per detained immigrant, per night.
It makes sense that some immigrants need to be detained: if an immigrant is arrested for a violent crime then it makes sense that they should be detained pending their deportation to keep them from harming others. The majority of immigrants in detention, though, have never been convicted of any violent crime. Most of those detained from 2009 to 2010 had no criminal conviction at all—they were there simply on the presumption of a civil immigration violation—and many of those that the feds classify as “criminals” have only traffic violations. Many have family members in the U.S. who rely on them; their U.S. citizen children are deprived of their father or mother and, without their parent to support them, often end up requiring food stamps or other public benefits (which were unnecessary when their parent could support them). Other detainees are asylum-seekers, including individuals who arrived at the airport in the U.S. (usually with a temporary visa of some sort), announced that they feared persecution if they returned to their country (such as fearing a forced abortion if returned to China or being tortured for one’s Christian faith if returned to a country like Burma), and then were detained until their asylum hearing, which could usually takes between two to three months, but in rare cases can take years.
The alleged concern is that these immigrants would flee and not show up to immigration court when required, if not detained. But, if that is a legitimate concern, an immigrant can be made to wear an unmovable ankle bracelet with a GPS tracking device, and quickly apprehended if they abscond. Such electronic monitoring devices cost between 30 cents and $5 per day. So why would we possibly spend $166 per day to detain so many non-violent immigrants?
The AP piece suggests that our federal government’s fiscal irrationality might be closely tied to the lobbying efforts of these private detention corporations. Over the last decade, while the privately-operated share of immigrant detention rose from 10% to about 50% and the number of total immigrants in detained annually nearly doubled, CCA, Geo Group, and Management and Training Corp. spent $45 million on campaign contributions and lobbying. CCA even had their hand in drafting Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigration law, which would dramatically increase the number of immigrants in detention. From a purely fiscal perspective, their lobbying and campaign contributions have been a shrewd “investment.” The company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000, had $162 million in net income last year; 43% of their revenues come from federal contracts.
These private detention facilities also have a terrible record of respecting the basic human dignity of their detainees. Over the last four years, there have been more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse in immigrant detention facilities, often by guards, but as of today these private facilities are still exempt from the provisions of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Private facilities are not bound by the same regulations as governmental prisons, and there have been various reports of inadequate medical treatment. In some cases, detainees are given insufficient or even rancid food. To communicate with loved ones, they have to buy phone cards which cost as much as $9 for a three minute call. Pedro Guzman, who was detained in a CCA-owned facility for nineteen months and whose U.S. citizen wife has guest-blogged for us in the past, summarized the situation by saying, “The treatment you get is like you’re an animal.”
These realities make me sick to my stomach. Our government detains hundreds of thousands of people who need not be detained for public safety reasons—for money. I was reminded of God’s judgment spoken through the Prophet Amos: “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7).
I don’t want to come off as anti-corporate here. I think a lot of corporations do a great deal of good. At a time of high unemployment, they provide jobs— after all, a Chick-Fil-A store in Virginia, which employs a lot of refugees, is a great example. Corporate partners, often jointly represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are an important ally of Christian groups advocating for immigration reform as well. But corporations, made up of people, can do good or do evil, and pushing to have non-violent people taken from their families and detained just to increase profits is simply immoral. Sure, these companies provide jobs, but so did the slave trade; some jobs should not exist. (Plus, some of these companies employ as few Americans as possible: to maximize profits, they have detainees work for just $1 per day; ironically, though many of these detainees’ sole offense was working without authorization, it is actually legal for them to work—for incredibly exploitative wages—while detained).
As I reflect on all of this, I can’t help but wonder: what if American Christians were as concerned about making sure their dollars—in the form of taxes—did not go to companies like CCA and Geo Group as we are to show our support for a company like Chick-Fil-A? What would have to happen for us to line up for hours to tell our legislators that we did not want them spending our tax dollars on detaining non-violent immigrants and that we would vote against them if they accepted contributions from these companies?
We might be even more implicated: the United Methodist Church realized its pension agency had about $1 million invested in CCA and Geo Group. To their credit, they divested; it makes me wonder how many other denominations and Christian colleges have some of their endowment earning a profit off of injustice. What about your 401K retirement plan? Do you know where your retirement funds are invested? It’s easier, in many ways, not to know, but the reality is that many of us may be profiting from policies that harm families and mistreat desperate asylum-seekers.
“Eat more chikin” if you want, but my prayer is that the Church would show the same passion for divesting our retirement savings and tax dollars from companies that advance injustice as we do when we feel that our own religious freedom rights are under attack. I’m hoping that, just like #chickfila was trending on Twitter last Wednesday, #cca and #geo will become infamous this week.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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