A Rapid Justice Program for Immigrants Means Profits for Prisons

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On a recent day at a migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Nogales, Luis* was waiting for a call from his guide informing him they would be crossing the desert into the United States.

The 34-year-old had been in the city, just an hour's drive south of Tucson, Arizona, for nearly two weeks and said he missed his family, especially his two young daughters.

Luis had worked at a farm in Arizona and was the primary provider in his household. He was determined to go back and care for his children.

"I don't want to undo the life that they have," he said.

See Also: Immigrants Get Assembly-Line Justice in Federal Court

This was Luis' third deportation. The first time was four years ago when he was caught by Border Patrol and imprisoned for a month and a half through a program known as Operation Streamline.

The program sends as many as 70 migrants before a judge at one time, and has an almost mechanical conviction rate of 99 percent, according to a study by the Warren Institute. Defendants are given up to six months in a federal prison, often privately run.

The threat of jail time lay heavy on his mind, but Luis said he was prepared to risk incarceration to return to his children. "If I cross back over they can give me time," he said. "But, no matter what, I will return."

Luis isn't the only one. Many other deportees are struggling to reunite with their families, according a University of Arizona report.

The drive for family reunification not only means people like Luis end up in prison, it means that the companies that run those prisons will profit.

If an immigration reform bill passes in Congress this year, it could increase those profits even more. For example, a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate in late June would authorize funding to triple the number of Streamline prosecutions in the Tucson district, the southern border's busiest Border Patrol sector.

When you combine the powerful draw of family reunification with a criminal justice program like Streamline, you get a renewable source of income for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison company with facilities in Florence, Arizona.

Under current laws, Streamline defendants charged with a felony for reentry receive a maximum of six months in a federal prison. But in an additional boon for private prisons, the new bill would double that maximum sentence from six months to one year. Subsequent reentry prosecutions would constitute two to three years in prison.

All that could translate into more profits for prison companies like the CCA and GEO Group. Both companies run prisons in Arizona where many migrants like Luis are held. In addition, CCA owns around 60 facilities in the U.S. and earned $1.7 billion 2012, according to The Nation. Nearly a quarter of the company's profits are from Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts.

A spokesperson for CCA responded in an email stating, the CCA "does not take positions on, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis for an individual's detention."

Meanwhile GEO Group owns 56 facilities and brought in $1.4 billion in revenue. Both companies have grown significantly with the increase in incarceration of migrants. GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of the senators who drafted the immigration bill -- John McCain (R-Ariz.) Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- have received donations from some of the largest private prison companies in the U.S.

McCain is among the top recipients, having received over $127,000 in contributions from private prisons since he was elected, according to The Nation. A request for comment from McCain's office was not returned at the time of publication. CCA and GEO Group combined have spent more than $45 million to influence state and federal government, The Nation found.

Not everyone in the criminal justice system supports Operation Streamline, however.

Isabel García was a former federal public defender and is currently a Pima County legal defender in Tucson. She has long been an outspoken opponent of the program, and now its expansion.

García said Operation Streamline erodes the faith people had in U.S. courts.

"I oppose not only the expansion," she said in a recent phone interview, "but the existence of Operation Streamline as a total mockery of our criminal justice system."

Within the program, "there is a lack of any real humanity, and any meaningful process," García said. "Most federal public defenders see that this is really an outrageous expenditure of money."

*We only used Luis' first name due to the sensitivity of his U.S. legal status.

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