On April 23, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the controversial immigration bill that requires police officers to ask anyone they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally for proof of legal residence, then arrest those who can’t produce it and send them into federal detention.
Almost two weeks later, on May 5, Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville-based private prison operator, filed a rosy quarterly report with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
These events may not be unrelated, as Phoenix New Times blogger Stephen Lemons suggested in a May 16 piece. Lemons found that Brewer had recently received nearly $1,800 in campaign contributions from executives, lobbyists and shareholders of the company. Lemons called the contributions, along with Brewer’s support of the law, a “possible conflict of interest.”
CCA operates three prisons in Arizona that house detainees for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Theoretically, more arrests mean more detainees, which means more money coming into the company.
“There are winners and losers in the business of immigrant detention,” wrote Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition spokesman Elias Feghali in an email. “The winners are often the companies that have a direct financial interest in seeing people detained, regardless of the merits of detention.”
For its part, CCA spokeswoman Louise Grant told Lemons that the contributions “were not intended to influence public policy.” Grant was unavailable for comment to The City Paper.
Federal detention, including detention on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is undoubtedly big business for the company. Take this, from the recent quarterly report:
“Business from our federal customers, including primarily the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or the BOP, the U.S. Marshals Service, or the USMS, and ICE, continues to be a significant component of our business. Our federal customers generated approximately 41 percent and 40 percent of our total revenue for the three months ended March 31, 2010 and 2009, increasing 7.5 percent from $160.1 million in the first quarter of 2009 to $172.2 million in the first quarter of 2010.”
A concerted legislative effort
Often, as in Arizona, state lawmakers can determine just how much federal custody is necessary. That may be part of the reason why CCA hires so many lobbyists.
The company has five lobbyists registered with the Tennessee Ethics Commission. Four are contracted from local firm JohnsonPoss. The fifth, former Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development employee Kelly Durham, is employed directly by CCA. Her boss, CCA’s chief lobbyist Brad Regens, is based in Arizona. He is a former fiscal analyst for that state’s legislature.
The corporation runs only one Tennessee facility that has an active agreement with immigration enforcers: the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason. ICE has another agreement with CCA-run Silverdale Detention Facilities in Chattanooga, but according to Temple Black, an agency spokesman, it has been unused since 2007.
ICE has similar agreements with the Memphis Federal Correctional Institute, the Blount County Justice Center and the Williamson County Jail. And there is one in Nashville. Under the Davidson County sheriff’s 287(g) program — under which some sheriff’s office employees are, in essence, deputized as proxy immigration agents — ICE detainees are held here. But according to ICE records and officials with the sheriff’s office, they are not (at least not routinely) placed in CCA’s Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility.
ICE records indicate that the average daily population of immigration detainees at all of those facilities was around 40 during the 2009 fiscal year. That’s down from 95 the year before, possibly due to a June 2009 presidential order that immigration offenders pulled over for a traffic violation be released on their own recognizance.
But a bill that passed the state Senate by a vote of 28-3 on Thursday is likely to increase those numbers again. The bill, SB1141, would require jailers in nearly every Tennessee county to check the immigration status of anyone who is arrested and report anyone whose legal status can’t be confirmed to federal immigration authorities.
Under the original bill, which passed the House last year and was sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham, a West Tennessee Republican, 20 counties would have been exempted. But on May 24, Sen. Diane Black rewrote it. Under the current bill, that law would apply everywhere in the state that isn’t currently participating in a federal immigration partnership. Everywhere, that is, except for Cheatham, Houston, Montgomery, Blount and Sevier counties, because Sens. Tim Barnes and Doug Overbey successfully passed amendments that would exempt their districts.
Packing campaign coffers
According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ online finance database, opensecrets.org, CCA’s national political action committee has spent more than $175,000 during the 2010 election cycle.
In recent Tennessee elections, the PAC has handed out thousands to the campaigns of legislative candidates, including Black ($1,000 for her 2008 campaign), Gresham ($250 in 2008 and $1,000 last year), as well as five of the eight co-sponsors of the Senate bill: Jim Tracy — who’s also received $2,000 from CCA founder Tom Beasley — Bo Watson, Jack Johnson, and, of course Bill Ketron, an immigration hawk who has famously brought up the idea of introducing Arizona-like legislation in Tennessee.
Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey received $1,000 in campaign donations from the PAC in 2007. His gubernatorial bid has received thousands in funding from top CCA executives, including President Damon Hininger, Vice President Tony Grande, and Chief Financial Officer Todd Mullenger. Then again, so has Democratic candidate Mike McWherter, former Democratic candidate Ward Cammack and Republican candidates Bill Haslam, Bill Gibbons and Zach Wamp. Former Democratic candidate Kim McMillan received a $125 contribution from Chief Corrections Officer Richard Seiter and $1,000 from John Ferguson, chair of the CCA board.
Rep. Vance Dennis, co-sponsor of the House’s companion bill, received no recent funding from the PAC. But three of its 23 co-sponsors did: Gerald McCormick, Barrett Rich and Eric Watson. Watson, of course, is a member of the Republican Caucus Immigration Task Force and a sponsor (with Ketron) of this year’s English-only driver’s license bill.
None of this necessarily suggests CCA is using its PAC to influence state immigration law. For example, neither state Sen. Roy Herron — who voted in favor of the bill — nor Rep. Henry Fincher show any recent funding from the PAC. The two sponsored last year’s Tennessee Immigration Compliance Act, which included similar language to the Black/Gresham bill.
Of course, the company is involved in municipal politics too. And its base city is home to perhaps one of the most outspoken figures in the country when it comes to illegal immigration: Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall.
Hall, apart from being the sheriff of a county with a CCA facility, is the man who introduced the 287(g) program to Tennessee in 2007. That same year, he received $800 from the CCA’s PAC. During the first two years of the program, the sheriff’s office detained more than 6,000 people, 5,300 of whom were eventually deported, according to its figures.
To Hall that was a success, which he argued last October, when a renewal of the 287(g) operating agreement came up for a vote in the Metro Council. It passed, and on Oct. 30, he received $250 in campaign contributions from six CCA employees. Those included Hininger, Grande, general counsel Steve Groom, former general counsel Gus Puryear, state government lobbyist Jeb Beasley, and local government lobbyist Tommy Alsup.
Hall would go on to win the county Democratic primary for sheriff. He was unopposed.