U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been under fire for opening three detention centers to hold Central American immigrant families who fled to this country seeking asylum.
Under the pressure of a federal court order, ICE is now exploring ways to release the mothers and children with alternatives to detention — but human rights activists are unhappy that the same for-profit prison company that locked up the families now manages their cases after release.
A dozen young Central American mothers in jeans and sneakers wait in a corner of the Greyhound station in downtown San Antonio. Each of them has a chunky, black, blinking device about the size of an olive jar strapped to her ankle: an electronic monitor.
The women can't take off the devices — even to shower, they have to keep them charged, and they have to check in regularly with compliance officers. If they break any of these rules, they're in trouble.
"It makes me ashamed, because they only put them on criminals, and I'm not a criminal yet," says Carolina Menjivar, a 28-year-old Honduran who's waiting for a bus with her two sons. She was fitted with an ankle monitor when she was released from detention five hours earlier.
"It's also uncomfortable," she says. "I don't even know if I can pull my pants on over this thing."
These immigrant women — with their fussy kids eating french fries — have no idea that their odyssey through the American asylum process is making tens of millions of dollars in profits for a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The GEO Group calls itself "the world leader in private correctional, detention management, and community residential re-entry services," and ICE is one of its major customers.
The company holds immigrants at 15 ICE detention centers in six states; the facility in Karnes County, Texas, was opened especially for Central American moms and their kids. The annual contract is worth $26 million. GEO declined to comment for this report, referring all inquiries to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE calls such facilities "family residential centers"; lawyers and human rights advocates call them family prisons. A California federal judge agreed, ruling in August that such centers are not licensed to hold children, and ordering ICE to release the families "without unnecessary delay" from the Karnes County detention center and two other sites.
ICE had already been exploring alternatives to confinement for more than a decade, says Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, ICE deputy assistant director for enforcement and removal operations.
"We want to examine further ways in light of ongoing litigation that we can ensure compliance that can include, obviously, the use of our family residential centers, but also through alternatives to detention programs such as electronic monitoring and our new case management program," he says.
The federal court order and ICE's compliance efforts led to a windfall for GEO's nonprison subsidiary, GEO Care.
Last year, GEO Care earned $330 million — about a fifth of the corporation's $1.7 billion in revenue. This year, the government will pay GEO $56 million to manage ankle monitors for 10,000 immigrants, and to run telephone check-ins for 20,000 immigrants. The idea is to keep track of released detainees to make sure they show up for ICE check-ins and court appearances.
And there's more: In September, ICE selected GEO Care to administer a first-of-its-kind pilot project, worth $11 million, to do case management for released immigrants.
For watchdog groups, all this raises the question of whether there is a conflict of interest for a prison company that now provides social services.
"Every time there has been an expansion of a different part of the detention system, whether it's actual detention or alternatives to detention, GEO has been right there ready to take advantage of it," says Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network.
Human rights activists like Jonathan Ryan complain that ICE's continued reliance on GEO criminalizes the presence of asylum applicants on U.S. soil.
"It's an ankle monitor here, it's time in detention there, it's a for-profit prison case manager who's now going to follow you on your day-to-day life," says Ryan, director of RAICES, a nonprofit in San Antonio that helps unauthorized immigrants. "It's a continuous, pervasive pressure that is being put on these women, constantly reminding them that they are not welcome here."
Yet these are alternatives to detention. Isn't that what ICE critics have been asking for all along?
Lorenzen-Strait says ICE is proud that it has released nearly 3,000 women from confinement since July and given them ankle monitors.
"Each and every day we do lots of releases from detention into the community," the ICE official says. "And each and every day we take people off of electronic monitoring and place them onto normal orders of supervision."
Fresvinda Ponce, a 41-year-old mother from Camayagua, Honduras, doesn't know when she'll get her ankle monitor off. She's living at a women's shelter in downtown Houston with her two teenage daughters while she awaits resolution of her asylum request.
"Sure, it's better to have an ankle monitor," she replies when asked about her release from the family confinement center. "I was desperate when we were detained. Every day my girls would come home from school and go into the room and cry. 'When can we leave this place?' they asked. It impacted all of us."
She reaches down and pulls up her white slacks to reveal the bulky black device strapped to her ankle, above her sandaled foot.
"Right now I feel free, but at the same time I think that I'm still not free," Ponce continues. "As long as I wear this shackle, I'm not happy. I feel like I'm still a prisoner."
GEO's involvement doesn't end with the electronic monitoring. It's the latest contract the company won that was the biggest surprise to immigrant advocates.
Earlier this year, ICE sent out a request for proposals to oversee the case managers working with 1,500 immigrant families in five select cities — just what immigrant defenders have been clamoring for.
The work will involve things like explaining immigrants' legal rights and the asylum process, and helping enroll their kids in school. The role traditionally has been filled by groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The contract went to GEO Care. ICE insists that the face of the program will continue to be community-based groups like Catholic Charities, but that didn't appease the critics.
"We were not very pleased that the contract ended up going to GEO Care, that is affiliated directly with a company that had prison ties," says Michelle Brané, director of migrants and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission.
Adds Mary Small, of Detention Watch Network: "Truthfully we're stunned and disappointed that ICE selected such an inappropriate provider."
Asked to comment on the fact that ICE keeps picking GEO to oversee more and more immigrant services, ICE assistant director Lorenzen-Strait says, "I can't get into how people might perceive our partners, but I can tell you that we really aim to ensure that there's a wide variety of different tools that we can use for compliance."
As it happens, the manager for GEO's new Family Case Management Program is a former top official in ICE's Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations. Skeptics are watching to see if the prison company can change its stripes.