The fate of private immigration prisons will be decided by Homeland Security homies

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Shutting down private immigration detention centers should be a no-brainer. The conditions found inside these facilities are really no different than the conditions in the private prison system that the Justice Department plans to shut down. In fact, many of them are run by the same companies.


Dozens of investigations and reports have documented how these private immigration detention facilities provide substandard medical care. Even the government’s own accountability office has found that the private prison model is rife with questionable business practices. But that pile of evidence hasn't been compelling enough on its own, which is why Homeland Security is now convening a special subcommittee to evaluate the situation and determine whether the for-profit detention centers should remain open.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has asked an independent advisory council to review the agency's system of private immigration detention centers and submit their report by November 30, 2016.


Though the members of the subcommittee have not been announced, it appears like it will be a job reserved for insiders. The subcommittee will apparently be selected from the 40 members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), which includes members of companies that have cushy contracts with the federal government.

Immigrant rights advocates, needless to say, have serious concerns about the impartiality of the new Homeland Security committee, and warn against the potential for a conflict of interests.

“It is impossible to see them as neutral observers of government subcontracting with private companies,” said Silky Shah, co-Director of the Detention Watch Network, an organization fighting to end immigrant detention.

A closer look at the Homeland Security Advisory Council shows that at least 20 of its members have backgrounds in law enforcement, intelligence or defense. The other half are business executives, academics, elected officials and government consultants. None of the HSAC appear to be individuals who have ever been detained in private immigration detention centers themselves, which raises a question about whose interests the group represents, and whether the real stakeholders— the immigrants—will be given a seat at the table.


“We would hope they would form a committee of experts that include immigrants who were formerly incarcerated,” said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

This isn’t the first time a Secretary of Homeland Security has tapped HSAC to review controversial immigration enforcement policies. In 2011 HSAC emitted a split-decision on Secure Communities, a federal program that allowed local law enforcement agencies to handover immigrants in custody for deportation. After years of public pressure the program was discontinued.


“HSAC Secure Communities review was not an earnest attempt to explore policy reforms,” said Newman. “[Homeland Security] has used the HSAC as a shield to deflect political liability that resulted from its controversial deportation practice.”

Advocates claim HSAC may be too cozy with Homeland Security to do an independent review of its policies.


“If the committee comes back with anything other than a recommendation to end the use of for-profit immigrant detention, we will know it was just a rubber stamp, because any serious look at these facilities couldn't result in anything else," said Cristina Parker, Immigration Programs Director, Grassroots Leadership, a group fighting to end private prisons.

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