CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA—A group of seven young activists risked arrest Wednesday outside one of the most notorious private prisons in the country: the Broward Transitional Center, run by the corporation GEO Group.
The protesters locked arms and blocked the entrance to the jail, chanting, “No more injustice! Let our people go!” Some are US citizens and others are immigrants covered by the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—which granted deportation relief and work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented people who were brought to the US as children.
As they were handcuffed by police, they said they hoped their action would pressure President Obama to include people currently detained in the facility in his anticipated administrative action on immigration.
“This is the President’s opportunity to stand with immigrant families,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez with the group United We Dream. “There are hundreds of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers behind the walls of the Broward Transitional Center who deserve to be free, with their families, and protected from deportation.”
The protest comes as watchdog and activist groups across the country are calling attention to the growing political influence of the private prison industry, and how it has come to dominate the immigration detention market.
In July, GEO Group’s CEO hosted a $10,000 per-plate fundraiser for Governor Rick Scott, a major supporter of prison privatization who is currently running for reelection. In Arizona, the same corporation became the top financial contributor to state House member John Kavanagh (R), who pushed to increase their already lucrative contract earlier this year.
Overall, during the past 12 years, GEO Group has given at least $4.3 million dollars directly to candidates, in addition to contributions they have made to political action committees, according to the National Institute on Money and Politics.
Their money has gone to both Republicans, Democrats and third party candidates. Though they have given most heavily to the GOP overall, their top recipient is Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California. They also spent lavishly on influencing Senators on both sides of the aisle who were instrumental in crafting the comprehensive immigration reform bill that never made it to President Obama’s desk. That bill, which clocked in at over 1,000 pages, included provisions to expand enforcement programs like Operation Streamline, which increase incarceration of immigrants in private prisons.
It’s unknown what the company’s position is on the type of broad deportation relief immigrant rights activists are calling for. But in its annual financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission this year, the corporation suggested that some changes to current laws would hurt its bottom line: “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level…could materially adversely impact us.”
But many legal rights advocates, including Florida-based social worker Grace Toapanta, have blasted the company for profiting off of locking people up. “There are businesses within businesses there,” she said. “They set bail so high. And making a phone call—every minute costs too much money. They’re enriching themselves off the most needy.”
Toapanta, who volunteers visiting incarcerated immigrant women, spoke to ThinkProgress at a recent Immigration Town Hall held just a few miles from the Broward Transitional Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She was joined by others who had experienced incarceration personally, including young father Eduardo Vazquez, who testified about being detained and held at Broward after he was stopped by police while riding his bicycle to his construction job earlier this summer.
“They treated us like slaves,” he told ThinkProgress. “They had us shackled in chains like we were dangerous criminals.”
Vazquez journeyed alone from El Salvador in 2002, when he was 15 years old, to try to earn money to support his single mother and younger siblings. He applied for Temporary Protected Status on arrival, but was told he wasn’t eligible. He was rejected again in 2004, and in 2012 failed to qualify for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because he lacked the proper documents proving his age and when he entered the country. Since then, he said, “I’ve been living in the shadows, and in fear all the time.”
After local immigrant rights groups mobilized on his behalf, he was released from Broward on $1,500 in bail, and is now waiting for a court date. He said he will plead not to be separated from his two young US citizen who he currently supports.
“I feel that the US is my home. It’s where I want to see my children grow up and have a good quality of life and have a profession.”
He told ThinkProgress he hopes the Congress members who organized the event–Florida House Democrats Ted Deutch and Joe Garcia–will be moved to push for relief for other undocumented parents like him, especially those locked up in for-profit detention centers.
Garcia told ThinkProgress he agrees, and has already written to President Obama urging him to issue an executive order. “I think there are people who have been here for a decade, for 5 years, who are here for family reunification, that pose no security risk,” he said. “Why are we detaining them and having [deportation] processes for them? Let’s put them in a [Temporary Protected Status] category.”
Deutch, who has long been critical of conditions at Broward, added that he wants the government to conduct a case by case review of every immigrant detainee and explore alternative to detention for “the lowest enforcement priorities.”
An executive action by President Obama is expected within the next few months.