Republicans With Influence On Immigration Debate Are Top Recipients Of Private Prison Contributions

As the immigration reform debate heats up, private prison executives have made it clear that they are monitoring how it will affect their rates of incarceration. During a call with investors last week, Corrections Corporation of America CEO assured investors that there will “always be demand for beds”, reflecting concern that incarceration rates will actually go down. With many elements of reform left on the negotiating table, the Columbia Journalism Review is showing just how much money the two major private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, have invested in the outcome:

Some of the politicians who have benefited most from this largesse are influential Senators who are now playing key roles in shaping proposed immigration reform legislation.

Among members of Congress, the top two recipients of contributions from CCA are its home-state senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The Republican lawmakers, each of whom has received more than $50,000 from CCA according to data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, represent important swing votes for advancing a reform bill through the Senate. Another top CCA recipient is Arizona Republican John McCain, who has gotten $32,146 from CCA and is a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that is working to draft legislation. His fellow Gang of Eight member, Marco Rubio, ranks among the top recipients of contributions from the Florida-based GEO Group, receiving $27,300 in donations over the course of his career.

In recent years, each of these senators has sponsored bills that would have increased the detention and incarceration of immigrants. Legislation put forward by Alexander in 2009, for example, would have provided for “increased alien detention facilities.” And a 2011 bill cosponsored by McCain and Rubio sought to expand Operation Streamline, a federal enforcement program that makes illegal entry a criminal offense in some jurisdictions.

Skyrocketing immigration detention numbers are attributable in part to programs like Operation Streamline and Secure Communities, which link criminal activity to immigration status. But they are also linked to record deportations, as many facing removal are subject to mandatory detention while proceedings are pending, leaving judges no discretion to decide whether to release them.


A McCain spokesman told CJR that McCain stands by Operation Streamline, and that he expects it to continue whether or not comprehensive immigration is implemented “because it works.” According to ColorLines, Democratic staffers are concerned that negotiations will lead to an expansion of Operation Streamline and other programs that detain and criminalize immigrants in exchange for support on other core elements of reform.

Immigration detention has more than doubled private prison profits since 1995, and these corporations have not been shy about using their influence to lobby for incarceration-friendly policies, despite claims from both Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group that they do not take official positiions on issues. Those sentenced for immigration offenses make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the United States’ overflowing federal prison population.