Which Politicians are Taking Money from Immigrant Detention Profiteers?

Following the shift from family separation to indefinite family detention, Trump’s cruel immigration policies are continuing to come under significant pressure in the streets, in the media, and in the courts. Additionally, there is escalating protest of the private profiteers behind the immigrant detention apparatus and the corporations that prop them up.

In a recent article, we highlighted some of these profiteers, including the ICE contractors profiting directly from family separation and imprisonment, such as CoreCivic, GEO Group, and MVM, and the banks, such as Wells Fargo and SunTrust, that provide critical financing to the industry. This article takes a closer look at another key source of support for immigrant detention profiteers: elected officials who take money from them, and in turn influence the public policies and outlays that they depend on.

As politicians are forced to pick sides in the broader debate about immigrant detention, their relationships with immigrant detention profiteers should also come under public scrutiny and pressure.

There are many ways to follow the money from profiteers to politicians. Research can focus on on federal, state, or local electeds, or on the profiteer side, on private prison companies, other ICE contractors (ranging from MVM to Microsoft), ICE landlords, or even on the banks financing these companies. This article just identifies some notable examples from campaign finance data; in a webinar next week, we will introduce some methods and tools to help people do this research. You can sign up to join that webinar here.

Many of the elected officials who take money from immigrant detention profiteers are ruthless, right-wing ideologues who are full-throated in their support of immigrant detention and of the private prison industry as well. Others are more liberal or tolerant in their positions on immigration, but still cash checks from the industry. Some in the latter set, mostly Democrats, can likely be pressured to return or no longer accept money from at least some immigrant detention profiteers. While those in the first set are much less likely to turn their backs on the industry, their relationships with the profit engines benefiting from their racist and xenophobic positions deserve public scrutiny, and tell an important story about the nature of our economy and politics.

Last week, in a piece for the Young Turks, Alex Kotch focused on a major piece of this puzzle: Democratic elected officials on the federal level who oppose family detention, but take significant sums from GEO Group and CoreCivic. The piece noted that Republicans raise more money from the industry, but that Democrats and their PACs have still taken significant sums, including $52,750 in direct contributions this cycle with a $10,000 contribution from the GEO Group PAC to the DCCC. The industry also relies heavily on lobbyists with deep Democratic Party ties – the piece notes that four lobbyists for GEO Group and CoreCivic have bundled $350,000 in this cycle alone.

For example, Henry Cuellar, a member of Congress who represents Texas’s 28th district, which includes Laredo and other border towns, is a top Democratic recipient of private prison money.

While Cuellar says he opposes Trump’s family separation policy, The Monitor reports that he has accepted $32,400 from GEO Group this election cycle, and CEO George Zoley has personally given Cuellar $13,800 since 2011. Cuellar has taken a total of $44,690 from GEO’s PAC since 2009. Cuellar has also accepted $8,000 from the PAC of CoreCivic, another major private prison profiteer, since 2012.

Looking beyond private prison companies to family separation and detention profiteers, former Clinton running mate Tim Kaine, currently a Democratic Senator from Virginia, has received significant sums from MVM Inc, one of the companies that has been identified by multiple sources as a major ICE contractor, with tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts to transport unaccompanied children.

MVM co-founder and longtime CEO Dario Marquez has donated at least $46,340 to Kaine from 2011 to 2017. Kevin Marquez, MVM’s current CEO and Dario’s son (Dario left the position in 2015 but remains chairman), gave $4,972 to Kaine in 2012 and 2016, while Wendy Thompson-Marquez, Dario’s wife, has given $8,500 to Kaine. All told, Kaine has received at least $59,812 from interests tied to MVM.

MVM’s donations also go beyond Kaine to the whole Virginia Democratic establishment. Data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project shows that Dario Marquez has given a total of $322,500 to Virginia politicians and PACs, most of it to Democrats. One big recipient of Marquez’s money was Win Virginia, a Democratic PAC established to win back the Virginia State House in 2017. Marquez gave $120,000, and sits on the Win Virginia board alongside his wife, who has also given tens of thousands to Democratic groups and politicians.

Elsewhere on the state level, a look at gubernatorial races show how private prisons have cultivated relationships with both Republican and Democratic candidates, including hardline right-wingers and those trying to stake out a more pro-immigrant position on the issue of family separation.

  • In California, Democratic nominee Gavin Newsom accepted $5,000 from CoreCivic in 2017, and had previously accepted $7,000 as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Newsom was a featured speaker at the Families Belong Together rally in Los Angeles this past weekend. CoreCivic also contributed $20,000 each to the state’s Democratic and Republican party committees, as well as failed Democratic gubernatorial candidates Antonio Villaraigosa and John Chiang.
  • In Georgia, the state Democratic Party accepted $1,000 from CoreCivic in 2018, and is providing backing to gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. The Abrams campaign has not taken private prison money directly this cycle, but she took in $4,750 from CoreCivic from 2012 to 2016, as a member of the Assembly. Abrams called for an end to the family separation policy last month.
  • In New Hampshire, Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who is running for re-election, took $5,000 from CoreCivic and $5,000 from GEO Group. Last month, Sununu pledged not to deploy the New Hampshire National Guard to enforce Trump’s family separation policy.
  • More hardline anti-immigrant Republican candidates have also, of course, taken private prison money, including Casey Cagle in Georgia ($1,500 from CoreCivic, $2,600 from GEO Group this cycle) and Doug Ducey in Arizona ($5,000 from GEO Group this cycle).

Additionally, while some Democratic gubernatorial candidates have pledged not to take private prison contributions due to pressure from groups like the Dream Defenders, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) – a 527 that can accept unlimited contributions from corporate donors, and in turn spends (launders) that money in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidates – has still accepted $135,000 from CoreCivic and $15,000 from GEO Group since 2017. The industry has been more generous with the Republican equivalent of the DGA, the Republican Governors Association, which has received $275,000 from GEO Group and $297,000 from CoreCivic since 2017.

This is not an exhaustive account of the politicians taking money from private prison companies and other immigrant detention profiteers. Such a project is beyond the scope of one article, however, activists and researchers around the country can find which of their elected officials are on the take using free, publicly accessible databases. Next week, PAI will be hosting a webinar introducing the tools to do that research. Join us by signing up here.