When the longest government shutdown in U.S. history finally ended on Jan. 25, Congress created a House-Senate conference committee to come up with a border security funding deal. President Donald Trump ran for office on the creation of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and shut down the government when Democrats refused to pass legislation with billions of dollars to fund it late last year.
The committee has until Feb. 15 to agree on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS operates Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which captures undocumented immigrants, often leading to their deportation. ICE does not operate its own detention centers and therefore awards lucrative contracts to private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic. The two companies received $358 million in ICE contracts in 2018 and have already racked up $42 million in contracts this year.
Sludge has found that more than half of the 17 politicians who will determine appropriations for ICE have accepted campaign contributions from the PACs of one or both of these private prison giants. Overall, 11 members, both Democrats and Republicans, have received $170,000 from the GEO Group and CoreCivic PACs since the 2008 election cycle, according to Sludge’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data. In the 2018 cycle, the companies donated $62,500 to six conference committee members.
“The fact is that GEO is one of the largest employers in my district and plays an important role in maintaining our public safety,” Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who is a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, told this author last year. “Without [private detention centers], rapists, murderers, and other offenders would not be incarcerated and instead present a clear threat to our communities.”
Cuellar’s campaigns and leadership PAC have received more money—nearly $56,000—from the GEO Group and CoreCivic PACs than any other Democratic member of Congress, according to Sludge’s analysis. Yet Democratic leadership appointed him to the committee in charge of ICE’s budget.
GEO Group is based in Florida but runs a number of facilities in southern Texas.
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Last year, Cuellar and 17 other Democrats joined Republicans to vote for a resolution in support of ICE.
A congressman from Tennessee, where CoreCivic is headquartered, has raked in donations from the company. Republican Chuck Fleischmann has received the second-highest total among conference committee members, nearly $22,000, all of it from CoreCivic PAC, since 2012.
Private prison donations have received increased scrutiny since Trump took office and enacted policies that discriminate against immigrants of color and Muslims, and separate parents from their children. Several Democrats, including Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), rejected or returned campaign contributions from GEO Group in 2018.
A spokesperson for Price, who accepted a total of $6,000 from GEO Group and CoreCivic in past election cycles, previously told this author, “In light of the Trump Administration’s cruel and inhumane family detention and child separation policies, Congressman Price decided to return a donation from an operator of private detention facilities and to donate to a leading immigrant and refugee advocacy organization.”
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