Elise Hendrick is an anti-fascist researcher currently working on an investigative series, entitled "Who Profits," which focuses on exposing the owners of ICE's for-profit detention facilities most vulnerable to public pressure. The following is an introduction to the series. Read part one here and part two here.
Over the past few years, as the Trump government has elevated the incarceration and deportation of migrants and refugees to one of its signature policies, the activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been the subject of broader public interest than either ICE – or its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service – had received in previous decades. The combination of newly developed awareness of the racist cruelty at the heart of the US immigration system and the current administration’s gleeful sadism in breaking up families and brazen disregard for US asylum obligations under international law has given rise to widespread public outrage. That outrage has taken the form of increasingly ambitious protests and direct actions across the U.S., directly challenging both the legitimacy of the deportation machine and its ability to function, both by members of targeted communities and allies. In this context, it is useful to know exactly how ICE functions, who is complicit, and where their vulnerabilities lie.
ICE is currently known to operate at least 1686 detention facilities of various kinds, including larger concentration camps like those at Aurora, CO and Adelanto, CA, ‘contract detention facilities’ (7 known), family detention facilities (5 known), smaller, less conspicuous ‘hold rooms’ (159 known), ‘subfield offices’, and ‘staging facilities’ (9 known), space in state and federal jails and prisons made available pursuant to intergovernmental service agreements (IGSAs) (784 known), as well as space in hospitals and other health care facilities, and rooms in certain hotels (including Best Western, Holiday Inn, Quality Inn, Embassy Suites, Drury Inn, and Red Roof Inn). Some of these may see hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees pass through on their way to deportation or (if they’re exceedingly lucky) release and some sort of legal status, others, like the ‘hold room’ in Alamosa, CO, may only hold thirty prisoners in a given year. Many of these are owned by state, federal, or local governments, whilst others are privately owned and operated, or privately owned but operated by ICE. Together, these facilities constitute the critical infrastructure of the US deportation machine. Without places to hold migrants and refugees, it becomes impractical to arrest them in the first place.
Small Detention Facilities: A Potential Pressure Point
Of all the 1686+ ICE detention facilities, large and small, it may seem counterintuitive at first to focus on some of the smallest. However, small does not mean unimportant. For one thing, in a country as large as the U.S., it’s not enough to have a few large concentration camps; in order for the logistics to work, there have to be stops along the way where people can be warehoused. For another, these facilities tend to be the most secretive in the entire system. Often enough, there is no sign or other marking on the outside of these facilities to indicate that ICE uses them to incarcerate people. ICE's unconscionable policy of secrecy on the number and locations of their detention facilities makes it possible, as one senior ICE official said in 2009, to make people ‘disappear’. By exposing these facilities, it will be that much harder to do so.
Furthermore, anyone who seeks to render the deportation machinery as ineffectual as possible needs to know as much as possible about the system as a whole, and particularly the most vulnerable parts of it.
The facilities discussed in this series are amongst the most vulnerable in ICE’s concentration camp archipelago. They are privately owned, but not by major companies specializing in incarceration like CoreCivic or CCA. Of the over thirty facilities and covered in the 'Who Profits' series, not one is owned by a major corporation or a company specializing in incarceration. The owners are almost exclusively local or regional actors whose main line of business is in construction or real estate. In addition, none of the owners has shown any interest in having their name associated with ICE or immigrant detention. Because these facilities are generally a minor and incidental business interest for their owners, they have much less to lose if they were to decide that their premises were no longer available to ICE. Because these owners have all opted not to make their involvement with ICE part of their businesses’ overall brand identity, they may decide that having their names associated with incarcerating migrants and refugees is more of a reputational liability than the six-figure annual rent is worth. Any loss in detention capacity, even a small one, renders ICE that much less effective in the region in question. Furthermore, the risk of exposure may well dissuade others from getting into the business in the first place.
How It Can Work: The Atos Experience
The recent past yields an example of just how effective this approach can be.
In Britain, one of the deadliest aspects of the overall attack on working-class living standards currently known as ‘austerity’ has been the introduction of regular ‘work capability assessments’ (WCA) for people on disability benefits. These 'assessments', which have become notorious for their cruelty, are carried out twice a year on all disability claimants, regardless if their condition is ever likely to improve. Tens of thousands of deaths have been attributed to desperately needed disability benefits being discontinued as a result of these ‘assessments’.
Instead of being carried out directly by the Department of Work and Pensions, these ‘assessments’ were contracted out to the health care subsidiary of the French IT corporation Atos. As news of the harm being done by the WCA spread, disability- and welfare-rights campaigners decided to target Atos specifically in their campaigns with slogans like ‘Atos doesn’t give Atoss’.
After a few years of this, the Atos brand had gone from being that of an easygoing IT company to being synonymous with callous indifference to human life and suffering. It became impossible to hear the name ‘Atos’ without thinking of people with disabilities being denied benefits based on a ridiculously simplistic questionnaire administered by a functionary with no relevant qualifications. The Atos brand had become utterly toxic.
Faced with the damage their WCA contract was doing to their brand, Atos decided to withdraw early from the contract.
It’s worth remembering that Atos is a major multinational corporation with multiple subsidiaries, present on both sides of the Atlantic. It is, thus, significantly larger than any of the detention centre owners profiled in the Who Profits series. Like the detention centre owners, however, the Work Capability Assessment was not Atos’ primary line of business. It was a sideline that they could easily discontinue when it became a liability for their other businesses.
The owners of the detention facilities profiled in this series are much more vulnerable to this approach than Atos ever was. Not one of them is a major corporation. They are, with nearly all local and regional actors, the only exception being Shane Astani (owner of the undisclosed ICE facility in Blue Ash, OH), whose SASD Enterprises company has build-to-suit projects in various parts of the US. However, even Astani’s business is mostly concentrated in southern California.
Of the over thirty detention facility owners who will be described in this series, not a single one has shown any desire to draw attention to their ICE sideline. All but one of them (Hans-Jörg Hegerl of the Alamosa Hold Room) own their respective ICE detention facilities via one or more purpose-built limited-liability corporations, none of which has sought or received publicity. Their names are not currently associated with ICE detention, and it seems reasonable that they would rather keep it that way. Shining a light on their profitable complicity in the deportation system might lead them to reconsider their involvement.
Moreover, although there are certainly plenty of others who might replace the current owners of ICE detention facilities if they should think the better of their relationship with ICE, this sort of public exposure creates a risk that they, too, might have their names associated with ICE’s deservedly toxic image.
In all, the Who Profits series covers facilities and their owners throughout the U.S., in Colorado, Ohio, Mississippi, Vermont, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, New York, Michigan, Florida, California, Louisiana, and Tennessee. They include relative unknowns and prominent local figures, including major donors to both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Each new installment will be published on an irregular basis as time permits and the state of my research allows for the fullest possible profile of the respective owners and their business interests.
In the near future, I intend to publish a detailed explanation of how this research has been done, and how others can do it as well, possibly uncovering other as-yet undisclosed facilities in the process. Suffice it to say that it is an exceedingly slow process requiring countless hours of staring at Excel tables from different U.S. government agencies, each containing at least a thousand data sets, some of which match, some of which don’t, and then researching each pertinent name found amongst the many irrelevant ones. It has taken over a year to get to the point where there is sufficient detail available to begin publishing these profiles. I have no sources of funding beyond whatever support my readers provide me. If you would like to support this work, please consider becoming a patron on my Patreon or making a one-off donation. Every bit helps!