The day after Donald Trump was elected president, the stock prices of the two biggest private prison corporations in the country, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, surged more than 20 percent. Private prisons have a lot to gain from a Trump presidency—and they themselves have admitted to lobbying for stricter immigration laws because of their effect on the prisons’ bottom lines. Contrary to the efforts of the Obama administration, it seems that private prisons and the immigration system will maintain a symbiotic relationship. With immigration as a primary focus of his platform, Trump’s administration will likely continue using and funding private prisons as a means of immigration detention, but his policies may not be as beneficial for them as the quick stock swell might lead one to believe.
Trump’s hardline immigration policy faces significant logistical and political hurdles. The deportation of all illegal immigrants in the United States could cost upwards of $166 billion, a figure that could lead to Congressional gridlock over budget. In addition, the sheer logistics of organizing a mass deportation are daunting. The efforts would have to include verifying country of origin, getting countries to take citizens back, and flying people overseas, just to name a few challenges. In addition, the current immigration system ensures that many of these deportees would be granted court hearings—slowing the process and raising the costs even further.
If Trump maintains his uncompromising stance on immigration and follows through with campaign promises, he will have to find ways to restrict immigration into America as well. While he has promised to do this with a wall, a more immediate solution is the use of immigration detention centers, especially those run by private prison corporations. The infrastructure is already there: 70 percent of immigrants held in detention are in centers run by private corporations. The main appeal of private prisons lies in their significantly lower upfront costs; whereas public facilities estimate that they spend seventy dollars per prisoner per day, corporations claim that the comparable figure in their facilities is ten to fifteen dollars. However, the conditions within these centers reflect the discrepancy in cost. Instances of medical neglect, lack of access to education, and prison-like surveillance and restrictions litter reports published by government agencies and human rights organizations alike. Despite these deplorable conditions, privately run centers are used because public detention facilities are easily exhausted, as the influx of Central American women and children in summer of 2014 showed. In fact, these fluctuations in immigration flows have remained a key argument from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for why they should continue to use private immigrant detention centers. Slow progress and stagnation on more dramatic immigration reforms will mean sustained profits for longer periods for private prison corporations.
The alternative is that Trump walks back some of his boldest claims and decides not to be as harsh on immigration issues. If he were to follow a more traditionally conservative agenda, it would most likely consist of two major actions. The first would be to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), Obama’s landmark executive orders on immigration policy, that give temporary permission to children of undocumented immigrants to study and work in the United States. The second move would most likely be to reduce the refugee quota, particularly from parts of the world his administration considers “compromised by terrorism.”
In these cases, it remains unclear how these moves would affect the government’s use of privately run immigration detention centers. The repeal of DACA, as it stands, would not offer any monetary benefit to private prisons. Private corporations, such as CCA and GEO, thus support an enforcement-first approach towards immigrants, which prioritizes detention and deportation as deterrents against new and potential immigrants. They prefer to deal with immigrants who are trying to cross borders and enter the country, not ones who are already here. DACA, on the other hand, deals with the eight hundred thousand immigrants who would have to leave a country in which they already work and reside. Trump has not clarified where these people would go or stay after being stripped of their status, but it is unlikely that they would have to live in private detention centers because of the immense potential political pushback from liberals and immigrant rights activists. If the majority are moved into deportation proceedings, the administration faces the same logistical and financial issues of mass deportation, albeit on a smaller scale.
However, restricting the number of refugees and their country of origin could be lucrative for these detention centers, and catastrophic for the human rights of asylum-seekers. The human rights records of these detention centers are abysmal, and more immigrants would be held in them while awaiting a decision on whether or not they would be granted legal status. Furthermore, the current quota system that defines the relationship between the government and private prisons would be reinforced by a move to further restrict refugees by nationality and volume. As more asylum-seekers are detained, the less the government must compensate these corporations for ‘unused beds.’ This approach toward immigrant and refugee detention is shared by nearly 50 percent of Republicans in some form, implying that it will be popular in a Republican-controlled Congress. If it’s enshrined in law, these private corporations would be in the good graces of the Trump administration.
Trump thinks that private prisons “seem to work a lot better,” and the recent stock jump indicates that his election has already served them well. However, the role they will play in his administration may not always be to their benefit, depending on how much he deviates from his campaign platform. If he carries out his extreme campaign promises, he will likely fund private detention centers and lean on them to detain immigrants while those projects are underway. If he takes a more standard conservative approach, Trump’s policy might not be as lucrative for the corporations as they hope. At this point, much like the rest of Trump’s presidency, it is difficult to predict who will benefit, and by how much, from his policies.
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