[Ppnews] Immigration and Mass Incarceration in the Obama Era

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 4 10:23:32 EDT 2011

August 4, 2011

Immigration and Mass Incarceration in the Obama Era

The New Operation Wetback


Last week Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) 
joined a demonstration in Washington D.C. to 
protest the refusal of President Obama to use his 
executive powers to halt the deportations of the 
undocumented. Gutierrez’ arrest came only two 
days after Obama had addressed a conference  of 
the National Council of La Raza. Conveniently 
forgetting the history of the civil right 
struggles that made his Presidency a possibility, 
Obama reminded those attending that he was bound 
to “uphold the laws on the books.”

With over 392,000 deportations in 2010, more than 
in any of the Bush years, many activists fear we 
are in the midst of a repeat of notorious 
episodes of the past such as the “Repatriation” 
campaign of the 1930s and the infamous Operation 
Wetback of 1954, both of which resulted in the 
deportation of hundreds of thousands of Latinos.

But several things are different this time 
around. A crucial distinction is that we are in 
the era of mass incarceration. Not only are the 
undocumented being deported, many are going to 
prison for years before being delivered across 
the border.  While the writings of Michelle 
Alexander and others have highlighted the 
widespread targeting of young African-American 
males by the criminal justice system, few have 
noted that in the last decade the complexion of 
new faces behind bars has been dramatically 
changing. Since the turn of the century, the 
number of blacks in prisons has declined 
slightly, while the  ranks of Latinos 
incarcerated has increased by nearly 50%,  reaching just over 300,000 in 2009.

A second distinguishing feature of the current 
state of affairs is the presence of the private 
prison corporations. For the likes of the 
industry’s leading powers,  Corrections 
Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, 
detaining immigrants has been the life blood for 
reviving their financial fortunes.

Just over a decade ago their bottom lines were 
flagging. Freshly built prisons sat with empty 
beds while share values plummeted. For financial 
year 1999 CCA reported losses of $53.4 million 
and laid off  40% of its workforce. Then came the windfall  - 9/11.

In 2001 Steven Logan, then CEO of Cornell 
Industries, a private prison firm which has since 
merged with GEO,  spelled out exactly what this meant for his sector :

"I think it's clear that with the events of Sept. 
11, there's a heightened focus on detention, both 
on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more 
people are gonna get caught
So that's a positive 
for our business. The federal business is the 
best business for us. It's the most consistent 
business for us, and the events of Sept. 11 are 
increasing that level of business."

Logan was right. The Patriot Act and other 
legislation led to a new wave of immigration 
detentions. By linking immigrants to terrorism, 
aggressive roundups  supplied Latinos and other 
undocumented people to fill those empty private 
prison cells. Tougher immigration laws mandated 
felony convictions and prison time for cases 
which previously merited only deportation. 
Suddenly, the business of detaining immigrants 
was booming.  PBS Commentator Maria Hinojosa went 
so far as to call this the new “Gold Rush” for private prisons.

The figures support Hinojosa’s assertion. While 
private prisons own or operate only 8% of general 
prison beds, they control 49% of the immigration 
detention market. CCA alone operates 14 
facilities via contracts with ICE, providing 14, 
556 beds. They have laid the groundwork for more 
business through the creation of a vast lobbying 
and advocacy network. From 1999-2009 the 
corporation spent more than $18 million on 
lobbying, mostly focusing on harsher sentencing, 
prison privatization and immigration.

One significant result of their lobbying efforts 
was the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, a law 
which nearly provides police with a  license to 
profile Latinos for stops and searches.  The 
roots of SB 1070 lie in the halls of the American 
Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a far right 
grouping that specializes in supplying template 
legislation to elected state officials. CCA and 
other private prison firms are key participants 
in ALEC and played a major role in the 
development of the template that ended up as SB 1070.

For its part, GEO Group has also been carving out 
its immigration market niche. Earlier this year 
they broke ground on a new 600 bed detention 
center in Karnes County, Texas. At about the same 
time the company bought a controlling interest in 
BI Corporation, the largest provider of 
electronic monitoring systems in the U.S.  The 
primary motivation for this takeover was the five 
year, $372 million contract BI signed with ICE in 
2009 to step up the Bush initiated  Intense 
Supervision Appearance Program. (ISAP 11). Under 
this arrangement the Feds hired BI to provide 
ankle bracelets and a host of other surveillance 
for some 27,000 people awaiting deportation or asylum hearings.

Sadly, the Obama presidency has consistently 
provided encouragement for the likes of CCA and 
GEO to grow the market for detainees. While 
failing to pass immigration reform or the Dream 
Act, the current administration has kept the core 
of the previous administration’s immigration 
policy measures intact. These include the 
Operation Endgame,  a 2003 measure that 
promised  to purge the nation of all “illegals” 
by 2012 and the more vibrant Secure Communities 
(S-Comm).  Under S-Comm the Federal government 
authorizes local authorities to share 
fingerprints with ICE of all those they 
arrest.  Though supposedly intended to capture 
only people with serious criminal backgrounds, in 
reality S-Comm has led to the detention and 
deportation of thousands of people with no previous convictions.

At the National Council of La Raza’s Conference 
Obama tried to console the audience by saying 
that he knows “very well the pain and heartbreak 
deportation has caused.”  His words failed to 
resonate. Instead Rep. Gutierrez and others took 
to the streets, demonstrating that “I feel your 
pain” statements and appeals to the audacity of 
hope carry little credibility these days. It is 
time for a serious change of direction on 
immigration issues or pretty soon, just as 
Michelle Alexander has referred to the mass 
incarceration of African-Americans as the New Jim 
Crow,  we may hear people start to call the 
ongoing repression of Latinos a “New Operation Wetback.”

James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center 
for African Studies at the University of 
Illinois. He is the author of three novels, 
Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and 
Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his 
six and a half years of incarceration. He can be 
reached at <mailto:waazn1 at gmail.com>waazn1 at gmail.com

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