Immigration reform means big business
By Michelle Garcia / El Diario/La Prensa
The fate of millions of immigrants is tied to immigration reform. But there are also numerous military contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers whose fortunes could be significantly affected by the bill.
Contained within the 1,000-page and counting immigration reform bill before the Congress is an estimated $4.5 billion in funding for "border enforcement," with potentially millions more added, which lawmakers say is as critical for reform. The new funding will expand an immigration enforcement apparatus that already receives more federal dollars than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI).
Doris Meissner, who co-authored the report, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have characterized a border strategy as one of "risk management" and using resources effectively. Illegal crossings have reached historic lows in recent years. Yet Congress appears to be taking the approach of dramatically increasing the budget for enforcement, as well as dictating tactics to the Department of Homeland Security.
"The ultimate question here is whether the return on investment for that continued build-up is necessary," said Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "I think as you can you see, it's politically necessary," she added, placing emphasis on "politically."
The financial payoff of border security will potentially enrich a wide-range of interests — from defense contractors, to private prison companies, to the towns and cities that house them. Indirect beneficiaries include organized crime groups such as Los Zetas who have come to dominate the human trafficking market. Like the push for immigration reform, border security measures reflect years of lobbying, agenda setting and influence building in Washington. "It's not like there are new interests — what's important is how much groundwork has been laid," said Lee Drutman, a senior at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracked the constellation of lobbying interests involved in immigration bills over the last five years.
In recent years, defense aircraft have begun to cruise across the vast border collecting information on migrants, smugglers and drug traffickers. The immigration reform bill calls for additional drones and the likely beneficiary is the California-based General Atomics which has a $454 million pending federal contract to build and maintain up to 12 drones. The influential industry now counts the support of the Congressional Caucus on Unmanned System or Drone Caucus in the Congress with 60 members from both parties. Last year General Atomics spent $2.4 million in lobbying politicians and made $680,682 worth of campaign contributions to members both parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics which tracks campaign and lobbying money.
“As defense contracts diminish, border security becomes a bigger part of their profit sector,” says Tom Barry who tracks drone contracts for the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank.
Drones also provide an x-ray of the border, says Meissner, director of the MPI’s immigration program, collecting information which allows agencies to gauge the number of illegal border crossings against apprehensions and better estimate the level of migration flow. The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would expand prosecutions of illegal border crossers in the Tucson, Arizona sector from 70 to 210 per day, building on years of increased criminalizing of immigration offenses. Immigration cases now represent the bulk of federal criminal cases, 40 percent, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
If Congress expands criminal prosecutions further, private prison companies stand to win millions of dollars worth of federal contracts to house and monitor immigrants. The Correctional Corporation of America, the Geo Group, along with Management and Training Corporation, spent an estimated $45 million in lobbying and campaign donations over the past decade, according to an Associated Press investigation published late last year.
The immigrant detainee population has surged from roughly 85,000 in the mid 1990s to 400,000 annually, with some 33,000 detainees held on any given day in privately run facilities scattered across the country. The Florida-based Geo Group paid $40,000 to Navigators Global, a Washington firm, to lobby on "immigration related matters," according to a recent lobbying disclosure filing and first reported in The Nation. The Geo Group is based in Florida, home of Senator Marco Rubio, who has emerged as a central figure in the immigration reform battle. And the lobbying firm was founded by Cesar Conda, Rubio's chief of staff.
"No one here has been guided by anything of that sort," said Alex Burgos, a spokesperson for Rubio, referring to lobbying interests. "We're guided by a set of principles."
Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations, said in a written statement that Geo Group discussions with lawmakers "have never been aimed at influencing immigration policy or influencing the outcome of immigration reform." Paez wrote that the lobbying efforts related "exclusively" to detention issues. "Our company has not lobbied to influence immigration policy nor have we taken nor will we take an overall position on immigration reform legislation."
"The original disclosure filed by our company's lobbying firm should have specified that the issues discussed with lawmakers in reference to comprehensive immigration reform related exclusively to the Alternatives to Detention Program within ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)."
State and local governments on the border stand to receive additional federal dollars for prosecuting, detaining and jailing unauthorized immigrants in criminal cases. States have argued that unauthorized immigrants are the responsibility of the federal government.
Another potential winner are organized crime groups such as the Los Zetas. From Mexicali to Brownsville, Texas smuggling costs have increased exponentially as border security has tightened becoming a revenue source for violent groups.
“Organized crime operates much like any business— if there is a higher risk, there is a higher price,” said Tony Payan, an expert on criminal groups. “A higher premium incentivizes more service providers to enter the market.”