Political imperatives – protecting the homeland and enforcing the “rule of law” – are seeking to prevail over prevailing over the forces of supply and demand in the transborder labor market. Although the immigrant labor market persists, the increased risks for both employer and worker, along with the recessionary economy, appear to be exercising downward pressure on supply and demand. But the immigrant crackdown has invigorated other market forces. The criminalizing of illegal immigrants and the end of the practice of “catch and release” for non-Mexicans picked up along the border have sparked a demand for prison beds for immigrants. Eager to cash in on the immigrant crackdown, private prison firms and local governments are rushing to supply Homeland Security and the Justice Department with the prisons needed to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants captured by ICE and Border Patrol agents. In the prison industry, bed is a euphemism for a place behind bars. Even President Bush talks the prison bed language when discussing immigration policy. When visiting the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas in 2006 to promote the immigrant crackdown, the president said: “Beds are our number one priority.”
At the insistence of immigration restrictionists like Cong. Tom Tancredo (R –Col.), the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 contained an authorization for 40,000 prison beds for ICE detainees – double what was then available.
DHS says it can guarantee the availability of a bed for any immigrant in its care. At the onset of the immigration crackdown two years ago, ICE dubbed its promise to find a detention center or prison bed for all arrested immigrants "Operation Reservation Guaranteed." That operation has been subsumed into ICE's Detention Operations Coordination Center. The Justice Department has a similar initiative to ensure that the U.S. Marshals Service has beds available for detainees—about 180,000 a year, of whom more than 30% are held on immigration charges.
Most of the prison beds contracted by ICE and DOJ’s Office of Federal Detention Trustee are with local governments; ICE has more than 300 intergovernmental agreements with county and city governments to hold immigrants, while DOJ has some 1200 such agreements. In many cases, particularly with contracts for hundreds of prison beds, the local government then subcontracts with a private prison company to operate the facility.
Prison beds translate into per diem payments from the federal government that are well above the hotel room rates in the remote rural communities where most of these immigrant prisons are located. With these per diems running from $70 to $95 for each immigrant imprisoned, local governments and private firms are rushing to expand existing facilities or to create new ones.
Earlier this year Cong. Tancredo, a leading immigration restrictionist, encouraged the town council of Aurora, Colorado to approve a 400-bed planned expansion for an immigration prison owned by GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corp.), the world’s second largest prison company. "Does anyone think we don't have 1,100 illegal aliens in the area?” he said, “I don't think that there's much to worry about. If there are 1,500 beds available I guarantee you they will be used." Despite opposition from local activists who spoke out against the immigration crackdown and the immigrant detention industry, the expansion is underway.