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ON THE BORDER w/KUNG LI

For the next three weeks, Kung Li will be driving along the entire length of the US-Mexico border, from Friendship Park in San Diego, Calif. to Brownsville, Texas. A lifelong southerner, this is Kung Li’s first trip through the border region. 

For CCA and Country

by Kung Li

Visitors to Eloy Detention Center are greeted by a mural of three flags. They are, from left to right, the stars & stripes of the United States, the rising sun of Arizona, and the maroon corporate logo of CCA. The three flags are painted as if they are being flown on the same level, with the Corrections Corporation of America’s flag flying to the right of the flag of the United States of America. This is, as any cub scout knows, a terrible violation of decorum, and highly disrespectful of the U.S. flag.

It is also a violation of the Federal Flag Code, 4 U.S.C. §§ 4-10, for which CCA should be instantly deported.

The Dream 9 were in Eloy when I visited the for-profit prison in the middle of the Arizona desert. All of the nine young people had been brought to the United States as children and would have qualified for DACA relief, the legalization-lite the Obama administration had conceded after three years of escalating pressure from Dreamers. But six of the Dream 9 had lost hope and left the country before DACA was announced, and so they no longer qualify. The other three – Lulu Martinez, Lizbeth Mateo and Marcos Saveedra – did something almost beyond comprehension: they voluntarily left the U.S. a few weeks ago to go fetch the others back. In doing so, Martinez, Mateo and Saveedra made themselves ineligible for DACA. When the nine Dreamers presented themselves at the Nogales port of entry, they were arrested and ended up in Eloy.

>>PREVIOUSLY: Border Patrol Overkill

Some of the Dreamer leaders immediately started organizing the other detainees. The warden, a corporate employee of CCA, decided to throw them into solitary confinement. (That a corporate employee has the power to make such a decision is also nearly beyond comprehension; even Bloomberg Businessweek is distinctly uncomfortable about this kind of wholesale delegation of police powers to a corporation.) CCA’s warden was afraid that organized, widespread unrest would generate bad press.

CCA is no stranger to bad press. Grassroots Leadership recently rounded up a worst-of collection of deaths, riots, graft, and corruption at CCA facilities. The Tucson Citizen has drawn up a CCA Rap Sheet that includes details of the close working relationship between CCA and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who helped keep CCA’s beds filled by signing SB1070 into law.  And just a few months ago, Elsa Guadalupe Gonzalez and Jorge Garcia Mejia died inside Eloy within two weeks of each other. Mr. Mejia was 40 years old. Ms. Gonzalez was 25. On May 8, Detention Watch Network called for ICE to terminate its contract with CCA.

Yet, ICE continues to pay CCA big bucks to lock up immigrants. I was in Eloy with Carlos Garcia of Puente, an Arizona grassroots group with members fighting to keep their families together despite best efforts by ICE and Sheriff Joe Arpaio to break them apart. Carlos was at Eloy to see his uncle, a handsome, silver-haired 62 year old man who doesn’t look a day over 64.

Carlos’s uncle has been locked up in Eloy Detention Center since November 2012. With his entire family in the Tucson area and a good chance that he will win his deportation case, the rational thing to do would be release him in the meantime.

So why is he still in Eloy?

It’s certainly not because he’s a danger to society. When the sequester loomed early this year, the Obama administration determined Carlo’s uncle posed no threat and simply released him. A month later, the spigot got turned back on, and Carlo’s uncle was put back into detention, to the tune of $79.06 a day.

That’s $19,000 – and counting – that the U.S. Government has stuffed into CCA’s pockets for locking up a 62-year old man the U.S. Government has determined doesn’t need to be locked up.

Absurd? Yes, but why stop there? ICE points out that they are required by law to “maintain” at least 34,000 detention beds. That means owning or paying out for 34,000 beds, regardless of how many beds ICE actually needs.  Just as two negatives don’t make a positive, two stupids don’t make a smart policy.

What two stupids do make are a profit for CCA. It’s no wonder that for-private prison companies have pushed so hard to take over the market for immigrant detention beds. A report by Justice Strategies explains CCA’s not-so-complicated strategy for increasing its market dominance: be generous with campaign contributions, and then lobby like hell for policies that increase detention. Seven years ago, for-profit facilities held fewer than 20% of immigrants in detention. That has now risen to over 50%.

The policies supported by CCA and other for-profit prison companies are good for the corporations and bad for the country. Mandatory detention laws, for example, mandate that people with a criminal record including any felony or some misdemeanors, must remain locked up once they enter the immigration system. The judges no longer have the discretion to make an individualized judgment based on a person’s particular circumstances.

Giving judges back their power to judge would empty out much of Eloy. A few feet to our left in the Eloy visitation room, Carlos introduced me to Elder López, a friendly, faux-hawked young man with a 6 year old boy clinging to his leg. The boy is Elder’s son, seeing his father for the first time in the two years Elder has been detained. Elder has a strong case – his wife and their two kids are all U.S. citizens. Before mandatory detention went into effect, Elder would likely have been released and allowed to handle his deportation case while at home with his family in Phoenix. Instead, he’s now sitting in a cell, away from his wife and kids.

The big winner in this set-up? CCA. Some advocates believe that, in a similar vein, the predominant beneficiaries of Operation Streamline’s criminal prosecution policy are the private prison corporations. I’ll look into Operation Streamline when I reach Tucson, AZ and Del Rio, TX.

A rally for the Dream 9 was gathering in the CCA parking lot when Carlos said goodbye to his uncle. Elder put one hand on top of his son’s head and gave one-armed hugs to the rest of his family.  Carlos and I left back the way we came in, filing past the mural of those three flags. I wondered whether the muralist knew that how the flags were painted indicated CCA was a sovereign power, equal in status to the United States. The insult to the U.S. flag may not have been intentional, but in this context, it certainly is accurate.

Follow CAMBIO on Twitter @CAMBIOtoday, and Kung Li @KungLiAtl.