Dust Storm at the Texas/Mexico Border — photo by Robert Stribley

What Is the “Immigration Industrial Complex”?

Maintaining a flow of undocumented immigrants in and out of the United States means big money for many companies

As Donald Trump burnt a phosphorous trail through the 2016 Presidential election—greased with fears of rampaging, criminal “illegal immigrants” — he typically left one important facet of the immigration subject unmentioned: Who is hiring these undocumented immigrants? And why do these employers receive so little of his ire? After all, if no one hired these immigrants, they wouldn’t come here, would they? So why the profound silence on the subject?

To answer that question, we have to learn a little about something that’s been dubbed the “immigration industrial complex.” Deepa Fernandes may have coined the term in her 2006 book Targeted, which focused on the subject of homeland security and immigration. She described how post-9/11, “[there] is big money to be made as the government dramatically increases its reliance on the private sector to help carry out its war on terror.” “On the home front,” she concluded, “the primary targets of this war are immigrants.”

In her 2009 paper “The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail,” then University of Kansas professor Tanya Golash-Boza described this complex as follows:

The immigration industrial complex is the confluence of public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of ‘anti-illegal’ rhetoric.

When you frame the complex in those terms, you realize its scope is monolithic. But how do these various interests express themselves? What are their strategies and tactics? Let’s look first at that immigrant workforce, which our government gives lip service to reducing but actually seems loathe to dismiss.

A Disposable Workforce

A dynamic exists in the United States, which those in power really don’t want to disrupt. Right now, American businesses can hire undocumented laborers for cheap labor. They can employ them for a while. And before they start earning too much, they can be dismissed, deported and replaced with a fresh batch of new laborers, who can be hired again at the same low wages. (Whether this is illegal or not, by the way, is wholly irrelevant: It is happening.)

That’s a status quo many businesses don’t want to change. It may explain why, when we hear Donald Trump complain about “illegals” entering the country, he always targets these impoverished immigrants and never the businesses, which actively seek to hire them.

Golash-Boza details this dynamic in her book Deported: Policing Immigrants, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. As she explains, “The mass deportation of men of color is part of a U.S. policy response designed to relocate surplus labor to the periphery and to keep labor in the United States compliant.”

She explains, too, that when those workers are deported, they also provide cheap labor for the multinational companies in their home countries. So it’s a win-win for business everywhere. And a lose-lose for impoverished people of color.

Profits for Private Prisons

Another group benefitting bigly from the immigration industrial complex is America’s private prisons.

It’s impossible to underestimate the profits these private prison companies make. Just one example: Back in 1983 former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party Tom Beasley and former prison warden Don Hutto founded the blandly named Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Now, CCA is the largest private prison outfit on the planet. In 2012, they pulled down $1.7 billion in revenue.

In 2013 The Nation reported that immigration detention costs United States tax payers about $2 billion per year. Much of that money goes to private prisons housing the 400,000 undocumented immigrants we detain yearly. The private prison industry had already doubled in size from the year 2000 to 2010. Let’s face a brutal fact then: These companies are motivated financially to keep undocumented immigrants coming into the country. So they can keep imprisoning them. And keep charging the bill to U.S. taxpayers.

It get uglier, too. In 2015, VICE reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) follows a policy requiring them to detain 34,000 people while they await their court date. That’s a quota ICE has to meet and it directly benefits private prisons. And taxpayers foot the $2 billion a year to pay for all that ICE activity.

And in early May The Intercept reported that the private prison corporation Geo Group had written a bill for the Texas legislature, which would allow it to detain women and children indefinitely in its family detention centers or “baby jails,” as some immigrant advocates refer to them. To accomplish this, they wanted these veritable prisons to be classified as childcare facilities. This reportedly applied only to asylum seekers, but these immigrants are imprisoned — literally locked into the facility and not allowed to leave. However, due to standing judicial orders, no child could be held for over 20 days in a location that’s not considered a childcare facility. As a result, Geo Group’s Karn’s, TX family detention center only contained about 100 people in its 830-bed facility. The company stood to lose a lot of money from that facility, which typically makes $55 million each year for the company.

This wasn’t about justice or providing shelter for human beings then. It was about dollars. If the bill were not passed, the facility would probably have to close. So Geo Group wanted to keep bodies in beds, despite the fact that a previous ruling concluded the facilities weren’t equipped even minimally to properly handle children. In fact, these innocent women and children would be living in conditions determined to cause them psychological and physiological trauma. A few days later in May, the bill passed in the Senate; however it died in the Texas House when the committee didn’t respond to it by their deadline. Geo Group’s CEO Pablo Paez vowed that the facilities wouldn’t close: “Contrary to claims made by opponents, the legislation our company supported did not diminish the standards for family residential centers.” Seems Paez would like to dismiss detailed clinical criticism and judicial rulings against the proposal as simple partisan opposition.

Political Payola

To ensure the money keeps rolling in, these companies will happily shower donations down upon politicians from both of our most popular political parties.

In 2012, the Associated Press learned that GEO Group, CCA and Management and Training Corporation, spent about $45 million on state and federal lobbying and campaign donations over 10 years. You may have heard that Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio received similar amounts of $133,246 and $133,450 from private prisons respectively during this last Presidential campaign. True. Also consider, however, that one company alone, GEO Group, dropped $225,ooo on the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuild America Now. (For what it’s worth, Clinton apparently donated some of that money to a charity, The Women’s Prison Association in response to discussions with the racial justice organization ColorofChange.)

In early 2013, The Nation’s Lee Fang showed that CCA and Geo Group funneled over $380,000 to the GOP — six times as much as they sent to the Democrats, the less sympathetic of the two parties. Meanwhile, House members were pushing to allow the detention and deportation of gang members who had yet to be convicted of any crime — a move that sounds distinctly unConstitutional but would guarantee bodies in prison beds. Fang’s piece details the thorny thatch of relationships these private prison corporations have developed, spanning both the GOP and the Democratic parties.

Think those prison companies are happy with the 2016 election results? You bet. In fact, as USA Today reported, GEO Group donated another $250,00 just to fund Trump’s inauguration. CoreCivic dropped another $250,000. That’s half a million dollars of for-profit prison-funded festivities from two very happy companies. As a result Trump’s poorly attended inauguration actually benefited from twice as much money as any previous one. So it was certainly historic in that sense.

Dollars for Deportation

Aside from housing and detaining undocumented immigrants, there’s money to be made from finding and deporting them, too. Historically, those costs have already been high.

Let’s examine some representative figures for fiscal 2016. In that year, taxpayers paid some $3.2 billion for ICE to identify, arrest, detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

That breaks down further to mean …

  • $10,854 for ICE to deport one person (includes housing, feeding transportation)
  • $129.4 million for ICE to identify and apprehend immigration “fugitives”
  • $5,633 to house one immigrant awaiting deportation for an average of 31 days
  • $1,200 to $1,500 in legal proceedings for each case
  • $1,978 to transport each individual back to his or her home country

Looking forward, The American Action Forum estimated that Trump’s promised plan to deport 11.2 million undocumented immigrants could take 20 years and cost up to a whopping $600 billion. Similarly, that money would go to apprehending, imprisoning, processing, and transporting undocumented immigrants.

Payment for Products

Just as it works with the military industrial complex, the immigrant industrial complex benefits greatly from the sale of a host of products and services: Think of all the fencing, the policing, the vehicles, the ground sensors, the video surveillance equipment and the drones. Yes, the drones.

NPR reported back in June 2013 that drones had been engaged at the Arizona/Mexico border to identify and track undocumented immigrants, as well as drug smugglers. Those came at a cost of $18 million a pop and, NPR reported, $3 thousand an hour to fly. Additionally, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) were considering a radar system (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar), which would cost $5 million per annum. Do the math and ask yourself if you really believe taxpayers are getting their money’s worth for the proposed operations.

In fact, a 2015 study by the Department of Homeland Security itself challenged the cost-effectiveness of the drone program. They said the CBP’s own estimate of $2,468 per flight hour didn’t include operating costs. DHS ultimately pegged the cost at an astonishing $12,255 per flight hour. DHS concluded, “CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results, and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security.”

In Targeted, Deepa Fernandes detailed how under then President George W. Bush in the years immediately after 9/11, companies were pitching the government to pay tens of millions for drones and helmet cams and mapping systems and finger-printing machines. She details, for example, how a four-month, $4 million trial for “anti-terrorism” drones on the Arizona border resulted in zero terrorists being caught or identified. Furthermore, given 8 months of work, those drones helped capture less than one half of one percent of that area’s undocumented immigrants who were rounded up within that fiscal year. (At the time, Fernandes also noted that George H. W. Bush — like Donald Trump — told the American public we were just getting rid of murderers and rapists. A lie then, just as it is now.)

You won’t be surprised to learn then that companies like Border Technology, Inc, which supplied drones and other surveillance technology to the United States have been eager to engage with Donald Trump since his election. Not to forget the long, long line of some 600 companies lined up to assist Trump with building his wall.

Texas/Mexico Border — photo by Robert Stribley

Resisting Consensus

In order for the immigration industrial complex to succeed, it needs Congress to resist consensus. Consensus on what? Well, anything that costs the complex money, of course: Paths to citizenship, work permits for immigrant laborers, and anything else, which might draw from the pool of undocumented immigrants, which the complex generates income from by arresting, processing, detaining, housing, feeding, and eventually deporting them.

As prison reform advocate and executive director of Grassroots Leadership Bob Libal told The Nation, “Private prison corporations have an enormous stake in immigration reform. A reform that provides a timely pathway to citizenship without further criminalizing immigration would be a huge hit to the industry.”

In other words, the immigration industrial complex is disincentivized to encourage sensible and humane reform to our immigration policies. In fact, they’re incentivized to encourage more arrests from a broader swathe of immigrants for increasingly smaller infractions and regardless of how long those immigrants have been here, what relationships they’re in, how many children they have and so on.

In case you think these companies couldn’t be that craven, here’s a quote from the 2011 annual report for one of the largest, Geo Group:

Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.

What Now?

The immigration industrial complex was thriving before Donald Trump stumbled into the White House. Now, it’s simply metastasizing. Within days of becoming President, Trump signed orders to begin building his promised wall, to cut funding from sanctuary cities and to construct facilities to detain undocumented immigrants:

Sec. 5. Detention Facilities. (a) The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.

That executive order also called for asylum officers and immigration judges to be sent to those facilities and (naturally) for “aliens” to be “apprehended for violations of immigration law” and “returned to the territory from which they came.” So Trump immediately acted on his promised immigration policies.

“It’s worse than we ever imagined,” Bob Libal told VICE at the time. “It’s the policy manifestation of all the ugly bigotry that Trump spewed on the campaign trail.”

In fact, arresting undocumented immigrants may be the one area Donald Trump has actually mustered significant success in office. Within the first 100 days of his Presidency, ICE oversaw a 37.6 percent increase in arrests compared to the same period in 2016. They arrested 41,318 immigrants. Some 75 percent of those immigrants have criminal records. However, that remaining 25 percent? Immigrants with no criminal record. In fact, the arrest of immigrants with no criminal record quickly doubled under Trump to nearly 11,000 in that brief time period.

Furthermore, we’re hearing stories about people singled out for petty crimes like marijuana possession. Some of these immigrants have lived here most of their lives. ICE repeatedly shrugs this off, literally explaining that they’re just doing their job. As acting ICE Director Thomas Homan told the Post, “The men and women of ICE are law-enforcement officers sworn to enforce the law. And that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re not going to apologize for it.” Interestingly enough, deportation actually fell 12 percent in the same period, though this has been explained by the fact that these new cases are more complicated to try, so the system is getting backed up. (Tangentially, ProPublica’s Patrick G. Lee recently showed how many of these immigrants are held in detention center hundreds of miles away from any legal help—a situation some believe is by design.)

Beyond that, however, Trump had just given the immigration industrial complex a huge shot in the arm. Whereas Barack Obama sought to reduce the use of private prisons, now their use would come roaring back. In fact, L&F Capital forecast a 25 percent increase in profit this year for GEO Group, one of the largest private prison outfits in the United States. They also suggested that the appointment of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General “strongly implies a return to a positive private prison sentiment.” CoreCivic saw their stock rocket upwards 43 percent the day after Trump was elected. GEO Group’s immediately rose 21 percent.

Then, on April 30th, the Senate finally approved a new budget, which would enable the government to stay open until September. Interestingly enough, that budget contains no provisions to begin work on Trump’s much lauded wall. So there’s a notable instance of bipartisan departure from Trump’s vision for you. However, that budget does keep the machine running.

Prior to this, Trump’s executive orders only enabled Homeland Security to utilize “available resources.” So they were limited merely to the $40.6 billion approved for 2017, which also had to be distributed among any existing efforts. Trump’s plans would cost an estimated $35.7 billion for immigrant detention, $11.3 billion for processing and $13.4 billion for “aggressive interior enforcement.” Wayne Calabrese, the COO of Geo Group must be overjoyed. He refers to moments like these as “enhanced opportunities” for the additional business they bring to his company.

Indeed, the immigration industrial complex must have collectively exhaled when the budget was signed. Their prospects for 2017 suddenly seemed that much rosier.

For undocumented immigrants, however, the picture has become that much bleaker. In a recent telephone conversation, Tanya Golash-Boza described how things have changed since Trump’s inauguration: “The kind of enormous fear and threats that undocumented immigrants feel today, that’s certainly much more enhanced that it was before January 20th.” She says, “That’s good for some employers because that means they have even more docile workers. There have been a few reports that have come out of people who are unwilling to stand up to their employers.”


So, yes, the election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has already meant a boondoggle for the immigration industrial complex.

The complex will face some hurdles, though. It’s difficult to augment a police force or a border patrol quickly, for example. “They’ve been trying to hire more people and have not had a lot of luck,” Golash-Boza explains. “They’ve got the labor pool they’re going to get.” The same principle applies to ICE agents. And even if they are hired quickly, “it would just lead to a high likelihood of abuse and corruption.” Similarly, positions for highly qualified immigration judges can't be filled easily.

Some concerns are even more mundane. Like the job of a border patrol agent monitoring a space which, in reality, few people are attempting to cross. “If a lot of money is spent on enforcing the border,” says Golash-Boza, “it’s like pouring money into a sieve.” She recently calculated that the average border agent apprehends about two people a month. “They’re mostly just sitting there.”

In her 2016 book, From Deportation to Prison, Patrisia Macías-Rojas describes bored border patrol agents falling asleep in their air-conditioned trucks while packages of marijuana flew over the border fence. Given the reduced border activity, the agents’ duties have even been broadened to “reducing crime in border communities”—a job that typically falls under the purview of police officers and sheriffs. So even as Trump’s money is allocated to the border, it will be, as Golash-Boza suggests, “a colossal waste of resources.”

Beyond the border, too, police forces within the interior are often embittered by the presence of ICE and less than eager to cooperate with their officers. No surprise then that some cities’ law enforcement agencies have even publicly refused to comply with ICE detainer requests.

Those hurdles and imperfections in the machinery of the complex may slow it down. But they do little to diminish the very real and very unjust climate of fear many American immigrants find themselves dwelling—and laboring — within now that Trump and sympathetic parties have empowered these dynamics.


*Updated 06/29/17 to clarify that Texas Bill 1018 died in the House

Recommended Reading

Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism by Tanya Golash-Boza, NYU Press, 2015

Emphasizing the ‘Complex’ in the ‘Immigration Industrial Complex’ by Nicole Trujillo-Pagán, April 2, 2013

From Deportation to Prison by Patrisia Macías-Rojas, NYU Press, 2016

How Private Prisons Are Profiting From Locking Up US Immigrants by Keegan Hamilton, VICE News, October 6, 2015

How Private Prisons Game the Immigration System by Lee Fang, The Nation, February 27, 2013

The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail by Tanya Golash-Boza, Sociology Compass, 2009

Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation by Pilar Marrero, St. Martin’s Press, 2012

New face of the war on immigrants?: US immigration reform by William I. Robinson, Al Jazeera, July 10, 2013

U.S. Grows An Industrial Complex Along The Border by Ted Robbins, NPR, September 12, 2012


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