Detainees inside a holding cell at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. The facility is operated by The GEO Group Inc. under contract from US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and houses people whose immigration status is in question or who are waiting for deportation or deportation hearings. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Earlier this year, one of the largest private prison corporations in the country sent out a statement to reporters claiming that it would not lobby in any way over the immigration reform debate. A new disclosure shows that the company, the Boca Raton–based Geo Group, has in fact paid an “elite team of federal lobbyists” to influence the comprehensive immigration reform legislation making its way through Congress.
The Geo Group currently manages several immigrant detention facilities for the federal government, and has faced questions about its role in shaping policies that may lead to more incarceration. In February and March, Pablo Paez, the Geo Group’s vice president of corporate relations, told media outlets, including the Financial Times and The Nation, that his firm would steer clear of immigration reform politics. See statement below (emphasis added):
“The GEO Group has never directly or indirectly lobbied to influence immigration policy. We have not discussed any immigration reform related matters with any members of Congress, and we will not participate in the current immigration reform debate.”
Geo Group’s quarterly lobbying disclosure tells a different story. A disclosure filed in April shows that the company turned to Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on “issues related to comprehensive immigration reform.” Navigators Global, a corporate government affairs firm founded by several Republican aides, has been retained by the Geo Group since 2011, though previous lobbying disclosures show the firm primarily worked on federal appropriations. The latest disclosure, however, shows that their scope of work on Capitol Hill shifted in the first three months of this year to include the immigration bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May. See screenshot of the disclosure below:
The private prison industry has developed close ties to leading members of Congress, including those in the so-called Gang of Eight leading the immigration reform discussions. Senator Marco Rubio, who is perhaps the most visible Republican on the issue, has received generous campaign donations from the industry, including from Geo Group.
The new disclosure suggests an even greater bind to the company because Cesar Conda, Rubio’s chief of staff, was the founding partner of Navigators Global. As we reported, he has continued to receive payments from the firm through a stock buy-out agreement reached after Conda entered work for Rubio.
Demands for an “enforcement-first” approach to immigration reform could dramatically benefit private prison operators. Conservative lawmakers have called for new criminal penalties for immigrants, mandates to local law enforcement to check the status of those suspected of being undocumented, and an expansion of current guidelines classifying undocumented immigrants as “criminal aliens”—all policies that could lead to more people being detained in private prisons, thus more profit for the industry. It’s no wonder Geo Group is now directly lobbying on the bill.
UPDATE: On June 6, a spokesman from Geo Group emailed me to say: "Contrary to the assertions made in your story, our statement as well as the disclosure itself stipulate that our company’s discussions with lawmakers have been related to the Federal Government’s existing Alternatives to Detention program." But as the lobbying report filed on April 18, 2013 clearly indicates, the Geo Group's lobbying firm told the federal government that they had lobbied for both "issues related to alternatives to detention within ICE" and "issues related to comprehensive immigration reform." So either the organization's disclosure to the federal government is inaccurate, or the spokesman's most recent claim is inaccurate. But they cannot both be true.