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Who Benefits from Immigration "Zero Tolerance"

I've been interested in the issue of criminal prosecution of border-crossers since Grassroots Leadership, the organization I work for, issued a report on the subject called Ground Zero: The Laredo Superjail and the No Action Alternative (PDF).

Then, we found that the spike in criminal prosecutions of first-time border-crossers was rapidly increasing the need for U.S. Marshals bed space in South Texas, and particularly the Laredo district. Now, Laredo has gone to a "zero tolerance" policy where every border-crosser will be criminally prosecuted, instead of processed in immigration court and quickly deported. The policy is modeled after a policy in the Del Rio sector. The policy may expand to the Rio Grande Valley next.

Who are the major beneficiaries of this policy? As Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, the impacts of tighter border security, while possibly decreasing the number of crossings, can be deceiving. Without meaningful immigration reform, such policies appear to cause two phenomena:

  1. undocumented immigrants already working here are not going back for holidays, instead choosing to stay in the US for longer periods of time
  2. drug and human smuggling cartels are gaining strength along the border.

A third impact, as described by Forrest Wilder over at the Texas Observer blog is a drastic increase in the need for prison bed space. From Wilder's post,

In a nutshell, that means the agency will try to throw every single immigrant they catch into jail. Doing so will require yet more detention centers, jails, and prisons. Zero tolerance likely won’t stop in Laredo. Border Patrol assistant chief Ramon Rivera was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “We’re hoping it goes nationwide.” The courts in Laredo are already swamped.

Public defenders I talked to two years ago for a story said it was all they could do to provide a basic legal defense for their clients. The courts then were corral-like, with dozens of defendants coming before the magistrate on a daily basis. Laredo had to build a new 1,500-bed detention center to hold them all.

Guess who benefits from that? Yup, the private prison companies. In Del Rio, GEO will benefit from a recently-completed expansion the troubled Val Verde Correctional Center. In Laredo, GEO is set to benefit from a contract to operate the 1,500-bed U.S. Marshals "superjail," a project that has been increasingly controversial. And, in the Valley? Well, maybe Willacy County wants another private prison?

The policy question should be, does spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up non-violent border crossers make sense if it doesn't decrease the number of undocumented immigrants and may be empowering the smuggling cartels?

Of course, that doesn't ensure successful political grandstanding like "Lock up the illegals! Zero tolerance!" does. But maybe it's time to look past the political sloganeering, and try something new.