Last July, when few people were paying attention, Denny Heck, along with most House Democrats, failed to stand up for immigrant rights. They instead voted in favor of continuing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), Trump’s deportation machine. Only 32 House Democrats, including House progressive leaders Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison, and Washington’s Pramila Jayapal opposed the measure. This was an opportunity for the Democrats in Congress to stand up and say we will not sign off on Trump’s xenophobic and brutal campaign against immigrants. But, sadly and predictably, herded along by corporate lobbyists with buckets of campaign cash, most House Democrats said nothing and voted yes. Soon, we will see which Democratic Senators are willing to back Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign when the bill comes before the Senate.
Democrats’ lost opportunity to challenge Trump
The fact that the ICE reauthorization is part of the larger DHS reauthorization bill is no excuse to support it. The intent of the bill is to update and modernize the laws that govern DHS, which was originally created in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. The ICE section can be separated out of the DHS authorization bill, allowing the reauthorization of other DHS agencies to move forward unhindered by a fight over ICE policy. If the Republicans were to allow a defeat of the entire DHS bill because of a showdown over ICE, they would have only themselves to blame. The Democrats have an opportunity here to demand reforms to ICE and to issue a challenge to Trump’s escalating campaign against immigrants. Unfortunately, after the House Democrats’ shameful vote of complicity with the Trump anti-immigrant campaign, most Senate Democrats are likely to do the same. The complicity of most Democrats on this issue is yet another testimony to the intractable corruption infecting the establishment wing of the Democratic Party.
ICE routinely violates immigrants’ rights
The US government’s vicious campaign against the more-than 11 million undocumented workers and their families in the US inflicts grave injustice on a massive scale. The institution through which this injustice is carried out is ICE. Using deceptive and aggressive tactics, ICE routinely violates immigrants’ due process rights, tears families apart, and imprisons people in what can be horrific conditions, including spoiled food, moldy showers, and 24-hour solitary confinement. Here in our own backyard, as reported by the Stranger, Representative Adam Smith (9th Congressional District) said conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma were “shocking” and “very, very tough” when he visited the prison in the wake of a hunger strike by hundreds of jailed immigrants.
ICE must show it has 34000 immigrants locked in its jails every day
Another dark feature of the ICE system is the detention quota, adopted in 2009 as part of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act. This unprecedented policy, known as the detention bed quota, requires by law that ICE maintain a daily detention quota of 34,000 beds at a cost of over two billion dollars per year. This means that every day ICE is required by law to keep at least 34,000 immigrants locked up in prison. No other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system. As part of his campaign against immigrants, Trump has called for dramatically raising the number of minimum daily ICE detentions to 80,000.
American businesses profit from the immigrant labor pool
The scale of violence and injustice in the immigration detention system is mind-boggling. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are caught up in this ugly system, including thousands who have never been convicted of any criminal offense. Trump is escalating this campaign. Most of these immigrants are hard-working people with families. Today, about 5% of the US workforce consists of undocumented workers, many of whom have worked in the country for more than a decade and have raised families here. American businesses profit enormously from this underpaid and exploited labor pool. Attempting to imprison and deport these people and tear families apart is not only inhumane, it is impractical. Most Americans understand this, which is why a majority of people support creating a pathway to citizenship for these workers and bringing them into the legal workforce. But instead of adopting meaningful immigration reform and stricter employer accountability enforcement, the US government is waging its campaign of and deportation on a massive scale.
The more people they arrest, the more money they make
What sinister force lies behind this government-created humanitarian catastrophe? One major factor is the private prison industry which makes millions of dollars off their prisons and jails. As progressive Congressman Raul Grijalva explained in a recent speech, this is a “money making scheme.” The private prison industry, he says, has their lobbyists, their former employees, and their top management personnel scattered throughout the Federal government where they are dictating policy. They have been a singular force that has consistently fought criminal justice reform and immigration reform at every level. “For them,” Grijalva emphasizes, “it’s about the bottom line. The more detention beds that are filled, the more people who are incarcerated, the more money they make.”
Currently, about 65% of ICE detention facilities are owned by private corporations who profit directly from the detention bed quota that they heavily lobbied to pass. This compares to about 18% of all federal prisons. Given the high rate of private prisons in the ICE system, private prison corporations stand to profit enormously from Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign. As reported by Bloomberg, “Trump’s pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration and deport millions has given the private-prison industry its biggest boost in years.” Following the election, the stock of CoreCivic, the largest of the US corrections companies, jumped 78 percent, while rival company Geo Group Inc., who owns the immigration prison in Tacoma, WA, was up 53 percent.
Investing in prisons and in politicians
If you look at who controls the private prison industry, you find the major investment firms Vanguard, Blackrock, and others. For example, the investment firm Vanguard Group is the largest shareholder of the Geo Group, who owns and operates the Northwest Detention Center at the Port of Tacoma. The Vanguard Group, a major contributor to Heck’s political campaigns, is also a major beneficiary of the private prison industry. Beyond prisons, the Vanguard Group holds shares in almost every major bank and corporation in the US, including Bank of America, Boeing, Honeywell, and General Electric, all of whom have also donated large sums to Heck’s campaigns. While it is impossible to trace the maze of corporate ownership back to actual individual persons, we know from the distribution of financial wealth in the country that the lion’s share of investment assets are held by the wealthiest 1% of the population.
As Bernie Sanders explains, prison corporations have lobbied via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for more draconian criminal laws, with the two largest companies spending more than $25 million on the effort. “A rise in lobbying and direct campaign contributions,” Sanders reports, “has correlated with dramatic growth in private prison population, greater overall spending on corrections and a sharp increase in private company profits.”
The result of this is government law and policy that puts investor and corporate profits over people, with disastrous consequences for our society on numerous fronts. Many of the crises our society now faces, including immigration and criminal justice policies, are a direct consequence of this core political problem.
The Justice is Not for Sale Act
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Most Americans do not support this gross injustice and this is not the kind of society that most people want. In the current Congress, a small, but significant number of progressive congressional representatives, including leaders Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee, Pramila Jayapal, and Keith Ellison are refusing to go along with this insanity, and are instead fighting for social justice.
Sanders and Grijalva have introduced a bill into Congress, the Justice is Not for Sale Act, which would put an end to the private prison industry in the United States at every level of government, from local jails to state and federal prisons. This bill is being promoted by Our Revolution (OR) as part of the “People’s Platform,” which contains eight progressive bills that OR is calling on Congressional Democrats to support. Yet, as usual for progressive bills that challenge corporate profits, only a small minority of House Democrats, currently 16, are co-sponsors. In Washington State, only Pramila Jayapal, the newly elected progressive Congresswoman from Seattle, has signed on.
On the other hand, Denny Heck and most other Washington Democrats have failed to show support for a number of other bills meant to protect immigrant rights, including:
H.R.1236—PROTECT Immigration Act of 2017 (115th Congress), 26 co-sponsors.
H.R. 1608—ICE and CBP Body Camera Accountability Act. (115th Congress), 37 co-sponsors.
H.R. 708—Protect Immigrants Rights Resolution. (114th Congress), 34 co-sponsors.
While establishment Democrats like Denny Heck pretend that they care about immigrant rights and act like they are fighting the Trump agenda, the fact is that they quietly gave their stamp of approval to Trump’s campaign. At the same time, they are failing to support, let alone fight for, reforms that address some of these injustices. We must expect more from the people elected to represent us.
People have lost confidence in their government
From the immigration crackdown, to growing disparities of wealth, from unchecked climate change, to endless war, the time for complacency is long over. The country is in a crisis, the system is not working, and people have lost confidence in a government that is so obviously drowning in money and corruption. Trump is but one symptom of this reality.
Now, more than ever, we need to mobilize to elect political leaders who will reject corporate money, stand up to corporate power on bills that hurt people, and fight hard for the progressive revolution that most Americans now support. This is a revolution to not only change government policies for the better, but to change the Constitution and the structure of government itself. We must get money out of politics and establish a genuine democracy that will really work for the people in an ongoing and sustainable way. The lives of millions of immigrants along with millions of other people in the US and around the world depend on it.
Jeff Sowers teaches at East Grays Harbor (alternative) high school, and has been for many years a peace and democracy activist. Last year he joined the Thurston Co Democrats to support Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He currently serves as a progressive “Berniecrat” precinct committee officer.