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Prison lobbyists help spread anti-immigrant laws

By Matthew Cardinale | Last updated: Jun 21, 2011 - 6:53:24 PM

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Graphic: Ledelle Muhammad/MGN Online
ATLANTA, Ga. - In May, Georgia became the third state to enact some of the toughest anti-immigrant legislation in recent U.S. history, when Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, signed the bill, HB 87.

Among other things, the bill allows law enforcement officials to ask so-called “suspicious” individuals to prove that they are U.S. citizens. In practice, critics say, “suspicious looking” is another way of saying “Hispanic,” raising concerns that the law encourages racial profiling.

The law is modeled on Arizona's anti-immigrant law, passed last summer. Utah became the second state earlier this year. Both state's laws are currently held up in the courts, where federal judicial circuits in the Western U.S. have not been favorable on the grounds that the laws are state or local interference with federal immigration policy.

The laws have already led to statewide boycotts in Georgia and are expected to bring legal challenges as well. In part, national lobbyists targeted Georgia because they wanted to set up a court battle in a more conservative eastern U.S. federal judicial circuit.

Meanwhile, supporters of the bill are celebrating, including the right-wing Republican base that supported the bill, as well as the for-profit prison corporations which stand to profit from the massive influx of suspected undocumented immigrants through the private prison system.

“Corrections Corporation of America, we know they have lobbyists here (at the legislature),” said Larry Pellegrini of Georgia Rural Urban Summit. Corrections Corporation of America is one of the largest for-profit prison corporations in the U.S.

“They (CCA) will benefit by the legislation. They have a corporate stake in it around the country,” Mr. Pellegrini told IPS.

Mr. Pellegrini also noted that the lobbying effort to pass anti-immigration laws in Georgia was part of a national effort.

One national lobbying group that was instrumental in bringing together business interests and lawmakers was the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

It was a council task force, which included a representative from a private prison—along with lawmakers from Arizona and other states—who helped draft Arizona's immigration bill, which became a template for Georgia's law as well.

According to CCA reports obtained by National Public Radio, the corporation believes that immigration detention is its next big growth market.

CCA's earnings were up 15 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period a year ago.

CCA reported earnings of $40.3 million, or .37 cents per share, on revenue of $428 million in first quarter of 2011, according to the Nashville Business Journal newspaper. CCA's revenue for 2009 was $1.7 billion.

The federal government pays over $60 per detainee per day to house men at CCA's Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigration detention centre in the U.S., located in Lumpkin, Ga.

CCA's top management in Tennessee contributed the largest block of out-of-state campaign contributions received by Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer. Gov. Brewer employs two former CCA lobbyists as aides who assisted with signing Arizona's SB 1070 into law.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, CCA spent $770,000 lobbying at the federal level in 2009 and has spent as much as $3.4 million since 2005.

Georgia State Sen. Donald Balfour, a key Republican supporter of Georgia's HB 87, in 2006, 2007, and 2008 received $2,000 each year in donations from CCA; in 2009 he received $1,000; and in 2010, $750.

Governor Deal received from CCA $5,000 in 2010 for the General Election. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has received at least $7,000 from CCA since 2006.

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers has received at least $3,500 from CCA since 2008.

When recently asked about the Georgia bill, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “It is a mistake for states to try to do this piecemeal. We can't have 50 different immigration laws around the country. Arizona tried this and a federal court already struck them down.”

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia are “seriously considering a legal challenge,” Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director at the Georgia ACLU told IPS.

“We believe the law is unconstitutional,” she said. “It encourages racial profiling and interferes with federal authority to enforce federal immigration laws.”

Meanwhile, key Republican legislators remain undaunted.

“I applaud Governor Deal's signing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, which includes numerous common-sense reforms aimed at addressing the social and economic consequences in Georgia resulting from the federal government's inability to secure our nation's borders,” State Rep. Matt Ramsey said in a statement.

“HB 87 is a comprehensive and necessary effort to enforce the rule of law and protect the taxpayers of Georgia from being forced to subsidize the presence of nearly 500,000 illegal aliens in our state. Current economic conditions have made it painfully obvious that the state of Georgia literally cannot afford to continue this broken system,” Mr. Ramsey said.

But not all Republicans were thrilled about the new laws, particularly Republican legislators representing rural Georgia districts. Many Georgia farmers are believed to rely upon low-cost immigrant labor to perform tasks like picking onions and plucking chickens.

Time will tell how the new immigration laws—even the very passage of them, whether the courts uphold them or not—will impact immigrants and their families living in Georgia—that is, whether they will stay here or decide to take their chances in another U.S. state.

(IPS/GIN)

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