Immigrant Bed Mandate Ensures Guaranteed Profit for For-Profit Prison System

By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen

I remember a conversation several years ago in which a Democratic staffer told me that the fastest-growing airline in the United States was the private collection of planes that delivered undocumented immigrants across the country. The reason had to do with the fact that Congress basically instituted a quota system on the number of detainees that needed to be deported each year. The Obama Administration’s executive order was supposed to change that, to a degree, if it protected enough undocumented workers from deportation. But the quota system from Congress remains, and it basically guarantees profits for the private prison industry.

A group called Grassroots Leadership has issued a report pinpointing that quota and the effects on immigration policy. We apparently have Robert Byrd to thank for this. From the executive summary:

In 2009, in the midst of a multi-year decline in the undocumented immigrant population, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), then Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, inserted the following language regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) detention budget into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010: “…funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” This directive established what would become a controversial policy interpreted by ICE as a mandate to contract for and fill 33,400 (increased in 2013 to 34,000) detention beds on a daily basis. The directive would come to be known as the “immigrant detention quota” or “bed mandate.” The immigration detention quota is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates under a detention quota mandated by Congress.

Since its implementation, the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy. The immigrant detention system has expanded significantly since the implementation of the quota, and the percent of the detained population held in private facilities has increased even more dramatically. Two major private prison corporations have emerged as the main corporate beneficiaries of immigrant detention policies: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group.

In fact, CCA and GEO Group now operate 62 percent of all ICE detention centers, even as the system has expanded over the last decade. They control 8 of the 10 largest detention centers. And this bed mandate is incredibly vital to the system’s cash flow; profits have increased 47 percent at CCA since 2007 and an incredible 244 percent at GEO Group. The majority of lobbyist spending from CCA goes toward members of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls that language and its interpretation. These detention centers are expanding, particularly in south Texas and Louisiana. It’s even led to acquisitions, as GEO just bought LCS corrections, which operates several immigrant detention facilities.

Nobody really knows how Robert Byrd slipped this quota into the DHS bill, and he’s dead now so he’s not talking (this was actually one of his last official acts). But obviously not many people had a problem with it, particularly not the Obama Administration, since it remains in there over five years later. In fact the quota increased slightly in 2012. And the Obama Administration’s 2016 budget, coming after his executive order for a “more humane” immigration system? It increases the bed count to 34,040. They claim opposition to the “mechanism” of the quota, but their Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency interprets it that way.

The report includes several captivating stories depicting the “human cost” of this policy. Here’s one:

Marichuy (Leal) was brought to the U.S. from Sinaloa, Mexico when she was 6 years old and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In her youth, she was sentenced to a year in Arizona State Prison in Yuma for drug charges. “I was going through a lot of problems with my family because they wouldn’t accept me for who I am, a trans woman,” Marichuy said. After serving a year in prison, she was deported to Mexico because of her immigration status.

After being deported, Marichuy was tortured in Nogales, Mexico because of her identity as a transgender woman. She was stabbed and has a scar on her head where she was attacked. She fled to Agua Prieta, Mexico but her attackers were following her so she presented herself at the Douglas, Arizona border to seek asylum in the U.S. Rather than encountering safety, she was immediately sent to the CCA-operated Eloy Detention Center in May 2013 where she was placed in a unit with 250 men. She was repeatedly called “faggot” by the men she was detained with, which the guards ignored. There was no privacy for showers, and Marichuy recounts that the guards and other detained men would watch the trans women while they showered. She and other transgender women would try to put up a curtain when they showered so the guards and other men wouldn’t be able to see them, but they were written up for doing so.

It goes far downhill from there, with sexual harassment, rape, beatings and verbal bullying. The guards just laughed at her and put her into “segregation” when she protested, which is really just solitary confinement. Marichuy attempted suicide unsuccessfully before being released on bond this January.

There are a lot of things done with taxpayer dollars that can shock the conscience, but this is right up there. And it’s really about the dominance of corporatism. This is basically guaranteed private profit by Congressional order.

Grassroots Leadership is calling for an end to the bed mandate in this year’s appropriations bill, a review of the for-profit prison system that is sucking up these ICE contracts, and greater use of non-punitive alternatives to detention. The American Friends Service Committee also has a petition on this subject.

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. sd

    This is absolutely the best description I have read of business today.
    “….it’s really about the dominance of corporatism.”
    Jamie Dimon, dressed in a leather corset and high heeled boots waving around a whip in his hand, gleefully lashing away.
    It explains so much about business today.

  2. weakling

    Combine this with TPP if you want to really give yourself a busted brain vessel. Eliminate the bed quota? Nope! And if you do manage to, ISDS will ensure that we’ll be paying up either way.

  3. TG

    Indeed, this is an outrage.

    I do point out however, that this is NOT part of an increase in the enforcement of the laws against illegal immigration. The laws against illegal immigration have been gutted, and legal immigration etc. is skyrocketing.

    Remember: most so-called ‘liberals’ care no more about foreign nationals than they do about US citizens and permanent residents, that is, exactly zero (present company excepted). They are opening up the border to the overpopulated third world and engineering a population explosion in order to drive American wages down and profits for the 1% up. Just like the establishment ‘conservatives’. It’s all about the cheap labor.

    But all they care about is the raw numbers! If a few percent of all these illegal immigrants are thrown in jail, or deported, or abused, so what? As long as the total numbers are maintained, the oligarchs just don’t care. And if these abuses can make enforcement of immigration laws seem inherently cruel, all the better.

    Without the post-1970 changes in immigration policy the population of the United States would have stabilized at 240 million. It’s currently been increased to at least 320 million (probably a lot more) and rising rapidly. It is currently projected to pass 400 million by 2040, but recent changes are accelerating the process: many projections show 1.5 billion by the end of the century. That’s a lot of people. Check out California: no, Virigina, more people do not create more fresh water. If a relative few millions are detained and abused, well, as long as the main numbers are not significantly reduced, the rich have always been happy to budget in for a little wastage. Just the cost of business.

  4. albrt

    I have first-hand experience with this system in Eloy and Florence Arizona. I would say it is as bad as it sounds, except it’s worse. Thousands of refugees clearly entitled to asylum are in prison on any given day because of this policy, and they are often held for a year or more in exactly the same conditions as a person convicted of a felony. And there is no difference whatsoever between the two parties on this issue.

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