President-elect Donald Trump’s brief foray into the airline business ended in financial ruin. But his aggressive deportation plan could bring a huge windfall to the industry.
Private prison companies, which enjoyed huge stock rebounds after Trump’s election, are doing the math: Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers are already bursting at the seams, and the agency is struggling to figure out where to put a record number of detained undocumented immigrants. If Trump’s plan to deport 2 or 3 million more immigrants comes to pass, ICE will almost certainly turn to industry behemoths like GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, to jail them.
But there’s another big payout waiting at the end of the process: the actual deportation.
ICE has increasingly relied on private charter flights to deport immigrants over the past decade, particularly as the influx of migrants from Central America swells. From its launch in 2006, ICE Air has contracted with commercial airlines and charter flight companies operating out of four U.S. airport hubs to take people either back to their country of origin or to another detention center within the United States.
“There’s a lot of money to be made there,” Ben Davis, a criminal justice researcher for the anti-privatization non-profit In the Public Interest, told ThinkProgress.
A report released by the Office of the Inspector General in April 2015 found that ICE pays an average of $8,419 per flight hour for charter flights, regardless of how many people are on each plane. That covers the aircraft, flight crew, fuel, and other operating expenses. Between October 2010 and April 2014, ICE spent $464 million on charter flights, sometimes for mostly empty planes, the report found.
The report also found that the agency had done little to ensure these flights were efficient or necessary, wasting as much as $41.1 million in taxpayer dollars during the 3.5 year study period. The program lacked any formal policies and procedures. “It also has not conducted a comprehensive analysis of current operations for making informed business decisions that will safeguard the program’s resources,” the OIG report noted.
The OIG recommended that ICE come up with a data management plan, institute better training for staff, and conduct an overall assessment of how effective ICE Air actually is.
“Having those recommendations will get more and more important if indeed the amount of people who are being deported ramps up,” Davis said.
Despite the waste on the government side of the equation, the charter flight companies raked in revenue. The main provider of these deportation flights is CSI Aviation. The aviation management firm subleases the planes, flight crews, and private security officers from other companies and offers the government a charter flight package. The company reports an annual haul of $35 million. In the past three years alone, CSI has received more than $300 million in contracts to provide the Department of Homeland Security with air passenger service.
Even more concerning, the company’s CEO, Allen Weh, is a big fan of Trump, who made his immigration plan a centerpiece of his campaign.
Weh, who was also a Republican delegate this year, helped lead Trump campaign rallies in his home state of New Mexico and participated in fundraising drives at Trump Tower. He also donated the maximum individual amount of $2,700 to Trump’s campaign and $24,600 to the Republican National Committee. He and his wife each gave $10,000 to the Trump Victory joint fundraising committee as well. His daughter is now the chair of the state GOP.
Weh has been a pillar of the New Mexico Republican Party for years, with two failed campaigns (for governor and U.S. Senate) under his belt. During these campaigns, he voiced support for Arizona’s draconian SB 1070 immigration law and called for tougher border security before Congress took up comprehensive immigration reform.
Though it’s the biggest flight contractor with ICE Air, CSI is part of a broader industry that stands to profit from an increase in deportations. Zephyr Aviation, Vision Relocation Group, Brookfield Relocation Inc., and Sirva Relocation all have contracts with ICE Air as well, Davis said.
In fact, nearly every step of the detention and deportation process has become an opportunity for private businesses to cash in. The detention facilities are not only operated by companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic, but the services inside them — healthcare, food, phone systems — are also contracted out to specialized firms, many of which have records of cutting corners, abusing immigrants, and overcharging. Detainees who are released on bond from these facilities are required by the government to pay hundreds of dollars a month to companies for GPS ankle monitors. And finally, they are shackled and put on a private plane. Trump’s plans can only mean more business for these companies, at a cost to everyone else.
Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.