The Border Crisis is Not Just About Racism. Follow the Money

Last Monday, the Trump administration announced a new expedited removal policy, expanding the Department of Homeland Security's power to deport more immigrants with increased speed. This news comes on the heels of a series of raids last week targeting thousands of migrants and months of uproar over the administration's controversial immigrant detention practices.

Meanwhile, many of these migrants who crossed through our southern border remain in various detention centers—which many have likened to concentration camps—across the nation, and the situation is only worsening. Immigrant detentions are surging: 132,887 migrants were apprehended this May, the most in any single month since 2006. This has led to severe overcrowding that exacerbates already-appalling camp conditions. Lawyers and members of Congress who have been able to enter the camps have seen detainees without access to showers, clean clothes, and hot food—accompanying near-endless allegations of abuse in recent years.

To combat this injustice, we must understand its causes. Through our nation's history, many immigration policies have been driven by nativism, so it makes sense to look at the current immigrant detention crisis within that context. However, there is another force shaping the particularities of the detention system that is often overlooked: money in politics.

What do political donations have to do with conditions in detention centers? It turns out that a large portion of the detained immigrants are being held within privately-owned detention facilities run by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE)-contracted private prison companies. In 2018, GEO Group and CoreCivic, two such private prison companies, received a whopping $358 million in ICE contracts. Mainstays in the prison industry, these companies have long histories of profiting off of the detention of vulnerable communities; making money off the violent imprisonment of Hispanic immigrants is but their latest financial endeavor.

Following the trail of political donations shows us how this travesty has been possible. The sad fact is that 11 out of the 17 members of Congress sitting on the conference committee that determined appropriations for ICE in 2019—including funding the agency used to give to contractors like GEO and CoreCivic—accepted private prison money to run their political campaigns. Since 2007, these 11 legislators have relied on more than $170,000 from these two giant companies.

Though Republicans have borne the brunt of the blame for ICE tactics, Democrats are complicit, too. House Democrat Henry Cuellar, who sat on the conference committee, has received more money from GEO and CoreCivic than any other committee member. Over the course of his congressional career, Cuellar's campaigns and leadership PACs have taken $54,690 from GEO Group's PAC and $10,000 from CoreCivic's. Unsurprisingly, Cuellar has been an unwavering supporter of ICE.

And this corporate capture doesn't stop at campaign donations. Since 2016, GEO Group has spent more than $4.68 million on lobbying. And CoreCivic spent an astounding $10.6 million on immigration lobbying between 2008 and 2014. Of that money, $9,760,000 went toward lobbying members of the House Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Subcommittee, which is responsible for funding migrant detention. Moreover, from 2015 to 2018, CoreCivic has doled out $4.16 million on lobbying, a hefty sum in such a short timeframe.

These corporations and their executives view their donations and lobbying expenses as investments. They pump money into the political system by donating to politicians and PACs, knowing that they will receive favorable policies in return—in this case, lucrative ICE contracts.

Politicians, on their end, take these funds because elections are increasingly expensive and they need to raise obscene amounts of money to be viable candidates.

To be clear, most of the time, most politicians do not change policy positions in direct exchange for campaign donations, but the preferences of big donors will surely weigh on the mind of politicians. This stunningly common and, right now, totally legal form of political corruption is incredibly corrosive to our body politic.

Ultimately, our broken campaign finance system renders irrelevant those who cannot pay to play and benefits wealthy corporate donors. After all, most individuals don't have the funds to compete with large corporations for political influence. This problem is tied up in the inequality of our economic system. To fix it, we must augment the power of small-dollar donations and remove the perverse incentive structures for politicians.

A robust system of public financing of elections would go a long way toward ending this corruption. Under a public financing system, small donations would be incentivized—either through democracy vouchers or matching funds—allowing candidates to rely on financial support from the people they represent rather than the corporations that seek to influence their positions. Allowing individuals to amplify their voices with comprehensive public financing of elections would produce a fundamental shift in American politics and finally make politicians accountable to the people.

It's critical to fight the destructive policies of this or any Administration, and closing the detention centers is a top priority. But those working to bring humanity to the border should also prioritize public financing of elections if they want to see positive changes. Our ability to prevent future atrocities depends upon it.

Danny Holt is a fellow at EqualCitizens.US and a student at Wesleyan University

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​