Privately owned detention centers turning immigrants into ATM machines

A guard escorts two detainees at the Krome Detention Center in west Miami-Dade County. Krome Detention Center is one of the most infamous detention centers in the United States. 2007 file photo from the Miami Herald. Photo: Donna E. Natale Planas.

By Katherine Lewin |

The Obama administration ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy in January 2017. This part of the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed Cubans without visas to stay in the United States and begin the citizenship process once their feet touched dry land. Cubans were also once exempt from immigration quotas and did not have to enter the United States from a legal port of entry, both conditions which are imposed on other immigrants.

The looming possibility of the end of “wet foot, dry foot” created a renewed surge of Cubans trying to enter the U.S. in 2016. This meant that many Cubans were on their way to America, either in border towns in Mexico or stranded in countries like Colombia and Brazil, when former President Obama ended the policy.

For the Cubans who were not able to cross the border into the U.S. before Jan. 13, 2017, entering the country was suddenly uncharted territory. Tips they may have been told their whole lives in Cuba and U.S. laws they once understood were now useless, and there are few officials at the borders who can or want to adequately explain to the Cubans how their new status affects their citizenship process.

Changing the Cuban Adjustment Act was meant to reflect the normalizing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba after decades of tension and sanctions against the communist Caribbean country. But instead of fostering peace and a safer immigration experience, ending the policy may have generated mass confusion in the Cuban immigrant communities and created a steady new human revenue stream for privately owned detention centers to legally exploit.

Combine this with President Trump’s plan to increase the number of immigrants detained on any given day from 40,000 to 80,000 people, and the private prison corporations in America stand to double their daily revenue to around $12 million, with the average daily cost to detain a healthy immigrant costing the federal government about $159. For Geo Group and CoreCivic, two corporations that own nearly all of the private detention centers in the United States, taking advantage of the political plight of Cubans fleeing their country might just seem like good business sense.

Private detention centers are not held to the same levels of transparency as state-run prisons, and from what they contributed to both federal and state governments and what they spent on lobbying in Washington in 2016, Geo Group in particular may have strong influence in the current administration.

Graph: National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“At the detention centers, it takes six days to make a decision about a Central American. Central Americans have an economic problem,” said Maria Fundora, founder of Cuba Libre Foundation, a human rights watchdog group that has been operating since January. “With Cubans, because they are asking for political asylum, they can keep Cubans for a year or even more. So the Cuban becomes an ATM machine. They can’t go backward and they can’t go forward.”

From Fundora’s experience working with thousands of Cubans attempting to cross the border, she believes the detention centers are using the Obama-era policy changes on Cuban immigration as an excuse to hold Cubans, especially healthy men, for longer than necessary to generate more profit. The costs of detaining women, children and the sick or elderly are higher than the cost for men.

“Most women get released within 48 hours,” Fundora said. “There’s more money in men. More incentive. Women are high maintenance. They have periods, they have children.”

Fundora also said many of the 1,200 Cubans her foundation has helped in 2017 report disturbing human rights abuses and outright neglect stemming from the officers in the detention centers. Deportation officers are not stamping parole cards or giving out necessary instructions for continuing the citizenship process. Immigrants are being detained without reason past their release date. Physical abuse is also a common complaint.

“They put Cubans in with other Central Americans in a cell and try to instigate fights by taunting the Central Americans, telling them they are getting deported immediately and the Cubans aren’t,” Fundora said.

Juan Lopez, the associate director of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in Miami, believes that the officers in the detention centers are plagued with ignorance, not malice.

“They [Cubans] are receiving so many different documents and different statuses,” Lopez said. “I think the border patrol officers don’t know what they’re doing.”

This argument holds little weight against the fact that there are only three main statuses and these are not new. An immigrant is either out on “parole,” out under “supervision,” or they are in the process of being deported.

Karime Bourzac, a processing and field support specialist for MRS in Miami, believes that the Cuban immigrants are ignorant of what federal aid they are eligible for, and this is causing the delays in getting out of the detention centers and completing their citizenship process.

“They have no idea about all of the things they have to learn and follow, from filling out an application to accessing a social security office,” Bourzac said. “If they are not engaged with us as the main source of advice, they are lost.”

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