I was taught as a student at Wheaton College to go through life with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I now read the news online more regularly than in print form, but I’ve continued that habit. I try to begin each day first by reading a few chapters of Scripture, then by reviewing the day’s news, and letting my reading guide me to prayer for God’s world.
Last week, I read the following passage in Amos, speaking of God’s judgment on the people (and, in particular, the rulers) of Israel:
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)
Then I happened to read the story of Demetrius in Acts 19. Demetrius, a silversmith, stirs up a riot to force the Apostle Paul to stop announcing the good news of Jesus in Ephesus. Demetrius is a cunning guy: he uses the Ephesians’ religious loyalties to the goddess Artemis to manipulate the crowd, but his real motivation is greed, as his silversmith business was suffering as people turned away from making silver shrines to Artemis in favor of worshiping the one, true God. He would not allow anything to cut into his profits.
With those passages in my mind, I began reading the news. I came across an article out of Orange County, California, examining the approximately 32,000 immigrants held in immigrant detention facilities around the U.S. today, including about 1,000 there in Orange County. Immigrants are frequently detained by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (part of the Department of Homeland Security) when they are awaiting a deportation hearing before a judge, ostensibly because they present a threat to public safety or because there is a reasonable fear that they will not show up for court if they are not detained. Most detention facilities, though, are not operated by the federal government itself: ICE contracts for beds in local government jails and in facilities operated by private corporations to detain immigrants; these contracts, which cost U.S. taxpayers an average of about $122 per bed, per night, can be very lucrative for those providing the space.
By detaining immigrants—about half of whom have never been convicted of any crime—at its facilities, for example, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department “has brought in about $25.7 million annually,” which it can use to subsidize other programs. Quietly detaining non-citizens, of course, is much easier politically than raising taxes. They make additional money by charging monopoly prices of detainees for basic services: telephone cards to make an outgoing call cost at least $20, for example, pillows are available for $8, and even a couple tablets of ibuprofen come at a cost.
Some of the privately-operated facilities with federal contracts to detain immigrants go to even greater lengths to maximize their profits. An article in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel earlier this month reported on alleged mistreatment and exploitation of detainees held in the 700-bed Broward Transitional Center, operated by GEO Corporation, which houses only immigrants “who committed no crime or whose offenses are nonviolent [or who are] arrivals seeking asylum.” According to the article, GEO Corporation’s contract gives them $110 per head, per day for the first 500 detainees, which accounts to more than $20 million annually. Though GEO insists that the facility “is not a punitive place [like a] prison or a county jail,” the distinction is lost on those who have been detained there, who report that men are all dressed in orange sweat suits, sleep six to a room with a shared bathroom, and have little to do with their time—except for to “volunteer” to work.
Such “volunteering” pays $1 per day, doing landscaping, kitchen work, cleaning, or other tasks. The arrangement allows GEO to keep its operating expenses down, and bored detainees accept the work because life in the Broward Transitional Center also brings about expenses. Juan Pablo Alvarez Castaneda, who spent five months in the facility before eventually being released, reports that the facility charged so much for telephone calls that he spent $70 per week. Ironically, the only offense that many of these detainees are guilty of is working and being present without authorization, but they can legally “volunteer” for $1 per day within this facility contracted by the federal government.
Because their profits increase the more people that they detain, companies like GEO have a strong incentive to encourage the federal government to detain more people. Globally, the company had its most lucrative year ever in 2012, with $1.7 billion in revenue, a one-hundred-fold increase since 1994. But, as their annual financial report last year warned, if there were changes to federal immigration policy—such as the reforms President Obama is expected to propose tomorrow night and those that Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been touting the past few weeks—the demand for their services “could be adversely affected.”
Like Demetrius, who saw Paul’s proclamation of the gospel as a threat to his pocketbook, but then found an alternate narrative to convince people to expel him, GEO and other private correction corporations actively seek to maintain the status quo—or even to increase the number of those detained—by selling their “services” as in the interest of public safety. GEO and the other four private companies with ICE contracts spent more than $20 million on lobbying federal agencies and elected officials between 1999 and 2009. They also expend money to influence state government policy: according to the Sun-Sentinel article, “GEO and its subsidiaries and employees gave more than $3 million to state elections nationwide.” They also make significant campaign contributions , which seems to have been a lucrative strategy: for example, of the thirty-six original cosponsors of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigration bill in 2010—which would have the effect of many more undocumented immigrants being apprehended and detained—thirty accepted donations from GEO, other private detention companies, or the lobbyists they employed.
I don’t want to come off sounding broadly anti-corporate. I believe corporations generally do a great deal of good, providing goods and services as well as employment. I’m a fan of the free market, for I think it has done more to lift people out of poverty than any other economic system. But we also cannot ignore Scripture’s warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). There is a grave moral hazard when anyone has a financial interest in seeing more people detained in miserable conditions, separated from their families, without any clearly demonstrable public safety benefit. The situation resembles that of ancient Israel, when God called to account those whom he accused of “sell[ing] the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
The reality is that these detention practices are the result of contracts with the U.S. government—a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” which means each of us is slightly implicated in this injustice. If we are to stand against injustice, now is the time to speak up, pleading with our Senators and Representatives to pursue immigration reform policies that would exponentially reduce the number of “detainable” immigrants, and insisting that the President and the bureaucracy he leads reconsider their detention policies.
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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