The Business of Borders: Imprisoning Immigrants is a Brutal Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

“They are not our friend, believe me,” Donald Trump said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

This quote was pulled directly from Donald Trump’s speech when he announced he was running for president — revealing quite clearly how he feels about the people of Mexico. Fast forward to April 6 of this year — not even a year and a half after his inauguration — and the “zero-tolerance” policy is announced, a policy that we now know resulted in the separation of an estimated 2,654 children from their parents once they crossed the border.

Asylum Is Not A Crime

Even though the zero-tolernace policy was put in place by the current administration, there were claims that it was originally created by the Democrats. “I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough, but those are the bad laws the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families,” POTUS told Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in May. The reality is that the POTUS’ desire for “stronger borders” and building a wall south of the border superseded any sliver of compassion he might have had for those that seek refuge in the United States.

Previous to the “zero-tolerance” policy, families who crossed the U.S. border illegally were detained together in family detention centers or released until they went before a judge in immigration court, were deported or had their asylum case(s) heard. The civil removal process was never to jail those who enter the country or separate families. Under the zero-tolerance policy, those crossing the border are criminally prosecuted, resulting in their detention and separation from their children.

What the administration failed to address was that asylum seekers who come to our border are required to be physically present in the United States to begin the asylum process; the narrative that those who are detained and separated at the border are committing a crime by being here is false. In order to begin an asylum case you must be in the United States or come to the U.S. port of entries near the border and state that they are fleeing persecution in their home country and seeking asylum. Instead asylum seekers were turned away or arrested. “ … people were told, ‘You don’t have the option to seek asylum and be reunited with your children,’” Gracie Willis, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told HuffPost.

People, Not Property

On June 26, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw issued the order that required an immediate halt to separating immigrant families at the border, as well as the reunification of parents with children under the age of five within two weeks of separation and parents with children aged five and older within 30 days. This order in no way obstructed standing immigration law; it simply reversed the implications put forward in the “zero-tolerance” policy that families were to be separated at border entry. “The unfortunate reality is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process,” Sabraw wrote in the order.

Unaccounted for is an understatement. By the time Judge Sabraw reversed the order — only a few months after it had been put into effect — parents were being deported without their children, and, in some cases, children were deported without their parents.

We spoke with Efrén C. Olivares, the Racial Economic Justice program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) who told us of one such story. A pair of brothers were deported while family that they traveled to the U.S. with were still detained in the U.S. Luckily, their mother was in Mexico. When I asked Olivares if the U.S. government knew that their mother was in Mexico, he replied, “Well, I don’t know that the U.S. government knew that before deporting them. Once they landed in the Mexican equivalent of [the Office of Refugee Resettlement], at that point the Mexican ORR interviewed the children and found out that their mom was in Mexico.”

In another reunification case with TCRP, a mother was told she would be reunited with her daughter and ICE agents brought her the wrong child. The mother was later reunited with her child, but these cases are prime examples of the lack of concern and organization surrounding the reunification process.

The Zero-Tolerance Policy Is Not the Beginning or the End

Forced Separation

As for the estimated 463 parents who were deported without their children, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is reported to have coerced many into signing papers for voluntary deportation by telling them it was the only way in which they could be reunited with their children.

“We are in touch with some of the parents who have been deported without their children,” Olivares told us. “Some of them told us that they did not want to be deported without their children. They don’t know what they signed, they weren’t given a copy. They were told it was necessary for them to sign, otherwise they were never going to get their child back, so they signed, but they don’t know what it was …”

Of the reported 2,654 children originally separated from their parents, 416 children remain separated, according to court documents filed on September 6. Prior to this, a status report was released in August with data that included tables with specific categories for those who remain in government custody under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). PBS News Hour broke down the tables outlined in the status report as follows:

  • 366 adults are currently outside the U.S. These are parents who have already been deported by immigration officials or left the U.S. voluntarily.
  • 154 parents “indicated desire against reunification.”
  • 83 reunification cases were “prevented or potentially affected by separate litigation.”
  • 46 children are under ORR care upon further review that showed they weren’t separated from their parents by Department of Homeland Security officials.
  • 37 adults had a “red flag” in other case reviews.
  • 36 adults had a “red flag” in their background checks.
  • 19 adults are in federal, state or local custody.
  • The locations for 10 adults are under case file review.
  • 9 adults were released to the U.S. interior.

Many of these categories are alarming considering what we now know about the lack of organization and coercion that has occurred throughout this process. The 154 parents who “indicated desire against reunification” is an obvious red flag for those that have been following this this story from the beginning — now there are two literal “red flag” categories. Until now, the term “ineligible for reunification” has been thrown around without any clarification as to why parents are considered unsuitable. All of these categories fit within the “ineligible for reunification” umbrella.

We spoke with Jorge L. Barón, executive director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), who is working with parents who have been placed in the “ineligible for reunification” category. When we asked if he has a better understanding of what these categories mean he answered frankly, “The answer to your question is ‘no.’” Barón works directly with the families effected and even him and his colleagues have remained in the dark about what disqualifies parents from reunification.

He has, however, dealt with cases in which a parent attempting to get their child back fell within the “red flag” category. “They told her that the child had expressed some concern about being released to her,” Barón told us, “and so they were not going to release the child initially. They didn’t really explain why. Then they were saying, ‘Well, you know, there’s a red flag.’ And we’re like, ‘What’s the red flag? What’s the reason?’ We pushed and pushed, and eventually they ended up releasing the child. There’s been all these cases where they said that there’s some red flag that has been raised, and, of course, nobody could talk to the child, so it was hard to figure out what it was they were claiming. In that case, it ended up being a moot point, because they did end up releasing the child.”

TCRP has also come across cases where parents were told they were going to be deported, and that their child was going to be with them on the plane — yet their child remained in the U.S.

The Zero-Tolerance Policy Is Not the Beginning or the End

Follow The Money

Throughout this entire process, it’s been clear to those closely involved that the government never had a plan in place to reunite these families. Instead of reunification, the government turned to facilities like the Southwest Key Programs in Texas — and placement of separated children in facilities similar to the one mentioned above is far from a new phenomenon.

The U.S. has a long history of detaining immigrant children. In Texas there are 32 licensed facilities for detaining migrant children, and roughly 100 in total across the U.S. Southwest Key Programs is the largest facility in Texas; its chief executive earned nearly $1.5 million in 2016 alone. And Southwest Key Programs is far from the only company profiting from the imprisonment of children seeking refuge. This is a billion-dollar industry that is financed by the American people.

A study conducted by Reveal from The Center of Investigative Reporting and The Texas Tribune uncovered an incredible amount of taxpayer money — $1.5 billion in the past four years — going to these facilities. Additionally the report uncovered evidence of gross abuse and neglect that often goes unchecked in these private companies. In the last 15 years, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department has allotted almost $5 billion dollars in federal grants to the Office of Refugee Resettlement — a small division of HHS. Allotted to companies like His House Children’s Home, in which a federal audit revealed that the center “might have placed federal funds totaling 9 million dollars at risk of mismanagement or misappropriation,” as well as evidence of negligent policy practices when it comes to medical care, clothing and background checks for adult employees.

During the media storm of coverage when the zero-tolerance policy was first introduced, images of chain-link fences holding children of all ages and a literal tent city with armed guards in Tornillo, Texas — which costs HHS $775 per person per day — flooded our feeds. Though the financial cost is extremely high — almost three times as much as it would cost to house families together — the emotional and psychological costs of these enterprises are much higher.