House Committee on Oversight investigates GEO Group immigrant detention centers

On August 18, 2016, then U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Bureau of Prisons would be directed to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of privately operated prisons, on grounds that they had proven unsafe and inefficient. On August 29, Jeh Johnson, who was the Secretary of Homeland Security, announced that his agency would evaluate whether federal immigration detention facilities, which are operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, should move in the same direction.

On February 21, 2017, only one month after President Trump's inauguration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the August 18, 2016 memorandum, stating that the it had changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau's ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.

That move raised suspicions regarding the relationships between the Trump administration and private detention facility operators. The largest such company is the GEO Group, and their core line of business is developing and managing correctional facilities. Data available on show that in fiscal year 2019 this company was the largest ICE contractor; the service they provide is running detention centers for illegal immigrants.

Developing suspicions

Back in June 2016, Republican candidate for President Donald Trump had told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he would like to “do a lot of privatizations and private prisons” because “[i]t seems to work a lot better.” In October of that year, it was reported that the Florida-based GEO Group had emerged as one of the very few publicly traded companies making significant contributions to super PACs. Those contributions had been used in support of Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio and Republican control of the Senate.

One year after Trump's inauguration, it was revealed that the GEO Group had contributed $250,000 to the inauguration, having already contributed $225,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a super PAC that backed Trump's presidential bid.

As the Trump administration began trying to throttle illegal immigration into the United States, suspicions developed around the concept that a sinister relationship between the Trump administration and private prison operators is — they imagine — a root cause of the growing number of illegal aliens detained in ICE facilities. Recent positive financial reports from publicly-traded prison operators are brought as circumstantial support for this theory.

Published reports attempting to document causes for those suspicions consistently ignore the following counter-arguments:

  • The recent staggering and unprecedented growth in the number of illegal aliens apprehended at the U.S. southwest border explains why business has been booming for detention facility operators.
  • Trump's internationally famous Border Wall initiative would obviously reduce the number of detainees.
  • The Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly called “Remain in Mexico”, under which “asylum seekers” who cross the southwest border illegally are returned to wait in Mexican territory, would also reduce the number of detainees in the United States.

The letter from the Committee on Oversight and Reform to the GEO Group

On July 10, after reports were published alleging ”grave conditions“ at immigrant detention centers and facilities for immigrant children, Elijah Cummings, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Jamie Raskin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, sent letters to three private contractors which operate ICE detention facilities for migrants; among them was the GEO Group.

The accompanying press release stated The Chairmen expressed concern that the value of the contracts increased significantly under the Trump Administration and resulted in massive profits.

The letter is addressed to GEO Group CEO George Zoley, and opens by stating The Committee is investigating the Trump Administration's rapidly increasing use of for-profit contractors to detain thousands of immigrants … and seemingly unchecked costs to U.S. taxpayers for these contracts.

The second paragraph reviews recent increasing reliance by ICE on GEO Group services, closing with an excerpt from an April 30 conference call with investors, wherein George Zoley told shareholders that GEO's first quarter in 2019 was financially and operationally the best in our history.

This is followed by a brief review of recently published accusations over the treatment of detainees at ICE facilities. Then, Elijah Cummings and Jamie Raskin demand that the GEO Group supply the Committee on Oversight and Reform with:

  • All GEO Group contracts related to ICE detention facilities
  • All subcontracts awarded by GEO Group for management of those facilities
  • Documents identifying those facilities
  • Documents showing GEO Group's cost, revenues and profits from each of those contracts
  • etc.
  • All documents related to deficiencies in compliance with ICE detention standards
  • etc.
  • All communications with ICE or Department of Homeland Security leadership or political appointees

What is the objective?

The purpose of this inquiry is never made clear. What problem would the committee like to help resolve? Are they hoping to discover inefficiencies that would be used to support a future initiative to eliminate private prisons, like the one that began under the Obama administration? Do they think that the federal government is being cheated, or that corrupt relationships between private contractors and government officials exist? Do they want to discover that private operators of detention centers for illegal immigrants are negligent in their treatment of minor aliens?

To date, there has been no further news from the Committee on Oversight regarding this inquiry. Unless there are further developments, the most likely answer to those question is that Elijah Cummings and his fellow Representatives from the Democratic Party are fishing for information that could be useful to them in the future.

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