In a late-October earnings call, George Zoley, CEO of private-prison company GEO Group, responded to a question regarding whether the company will continue to get business from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regardless of who won the presidential race.
"As long as there's a policy of border enforcement, we will...continue to play a role in supporting that policy," Zoley responded.
But recent Biden administration actions, as well as the just-announced fourth-quarter financial results for GEO Group, which runs the Aurora Contract Detention Facility under a contract with ICE, raise more questions.
"The tone of the statement very clearly expressed concerns about the private-prison companies' financial stability in light of the shifting political climate," César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor, says of a recent release from GEO Group announcing fourth-quarter results.
Those concerns stem, in part, from the Biden administration's announcement that it will stop renewing Department of Justice contracts with private-prison companies. Contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons represented one-quarter of GEO Group's revenue at the end of 2020.
However, much to the disappointment of immigration-rights advocates, Biden's executive order did not address ICE's contracts with private-prison companies.
"ICE is still permitted to contract with private prison companies like the GEO Group, so there’s no public indication from the Biden administration to suggest that ICE will not continue partnering with the GEO Group or other private-prison companies," says García Hernández, who wrote the book Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking Up Immigrants.
The vast majority of the individuals being kept in custody by federal immigration authorities are detained in privately run facilities, like the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which has the capacity for 1,532 ICE detainees but currently houses between 200 and 300.
Under Trump, the ombudsman for the Office of Immigration Detention argued that facilities owned and operated by ICE are more expensive than those that are privately run. But immigrant-rights advocates and attorneys have long criticized the use of private prisons for immigrant detention, pointing to instances of medical neglect and alleged civil rights violations as examples of the danger of combining profit motivations with custody and care.
"The failures and the inhumanities of the GEO Group's operation of immigrant detention have been well-exposed and well-documented. It is a failed system. Of course, keeping immigrants in cages in the first place is a failure, but turning it over to this particular company or any private company has been shown to be disastrous," says Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office. Before joining that firm, Jahanian worked at the ACLU of Colorado, where he sued GEO Group on behalf of the family of Kamyar Samimi, an ICE detainee who died after a two-week stint at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.
Investors who got in on GEO Group stock just before the 2016 presidential election and got out as the number of immigrants detained at the border peaked in summer 2019 prospered. But investing in the company is not as lucrative these days. While the price of a share of GEO Group's stock soared from between $14 and $16 in the runup to the 2016 election to over $33 in the first months of Trump's presidency, a GEO Group stock share now sells at below $8.
"We're significantly below the minimum guarantee level [for ICE detainees] presently because of COVID and the closure of the southern border," Zoley said on a February 16 earnings call in which he noted the uncertain nature of the company's future work with ICE. "The formula for what we can expect in the future is an interplay between new administration governmental policies, the eventual opening of the southern border, and the eventual passing of the COVID pandemic."
In fiscal year 2019, ICE's average daily detained population was 50,165; the current numbers show that the federal agency has 13,832 detainees in custody.
While the Biden administration has not issued any executive orders related to private prisons and immigrant detention, it did send a memo on February 18 to all ICE employees, letting them know about new enforcement priorities. The memo instructs ICE employees to prioritize individuals that the federal agency would characterize as threats to national security, border security or public safety.
That means that undocumented immigrants with minor criminal convictions and no gang or transnational criminal organization involvement will not be priorities for ICE, as long as they arrived in the U.S. prior to November 1, 2020. As a result, immigrant detention levels could remain low even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends and the southern border reopens.
The Biden campaign website had stated that Biden "will make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants." Now immigrant advocates want an executive order to make that official.
"Until the administration does this, I expect that they will not be let off easily by the activists who were such a crucial part of the Biden/Harris ticket's road to victory," García Hernández says.
In a January 28 letter, 75 members of Congress, including all of the Democratic representatives in Colorado's delegation, asked the president to cut ties between ICE and private prison companies.
"The Federal Government has a responsibility to ensure the safe and humane treatment of those in its care, and that must be as true for individuals detained in private prisons in DOJ custody as it is for individuals detained in private prisons in the Department of Homeland Security custody. We stand ready to work with the Biden Administration to end the use of private immigration detention facilities by ICE," the lawmakers wrote.
Neither GEO Group nor Biden administration representatives responded to requests for comment.
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