A private detention center in Eloy, Arizona. Ricardo Arduengo/AP

A new study finds that lawmakers hailing from districts with private immigration jails are more likely to introduce harsh immigration policy.

When Donald Trump won the presidency, the flailing private prison industry immediately started to rebound. Then, a month after he took office as president, the Justice Department reversed the previous administration’s decision to phase out the use of private prisons. In just the four months after Election Day 2016, private prison stocks jumped up almost 100 percent. With the recent migrant crisis at the border, they have jumped again—making it clear that harsher immigration policy is a boon for the prison industry. But how does the influence private prison companies have on immigration policy flow from the communities in which they operate to Congress?

A new study out of the University of California, Riverside, takes a stab at that question, and finds that members of Congress hailing from districts with private immigrant jails are more likely to push for harsh federal immigration laws.

“The worry from a democratic standpoint is that if we're making policy not because it is the best policy, but because it makes some companies money, then maybe that's not in Americans’ interests, let alone immigrant interests,” says Loren Collingwood, a political scientist at UCR and co-author of the research.

To test the relationship between the private prison industry and the legislature, Collingwood and his colleagues isolated 25 immigration-related bills in the 113th (2013-2015) and 114th (2015-2017) Congresses that would, if passed, increase the supply of immigrant detainees. They also examined campaign donation and other details about these legislators. They also mapped out some 50 privately owned and run immigration facilities that existed in all districts before these Congresses began session, using information obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They were testing two theories: First, would legislators who received more campaign donations be more likely to cosponsor such legislation, all else being equal? Second, would those members of Congress with facilities in their districts be more likely sponsor such legislation?

They examined these relationships, controlling for the demographic and economic characteristics of the districts, the number of ICE facilities in each district, and any characteristics of the lawmaker that would make them more likely to sponsor punitive immigration bills (including political ideology and membership in immigration-related committees). They did not find evidence in their dataset supporting the first donations hypothesis but confirmed the second: A legislator hailing from a district with three privately owned or managed detention facilities cosponsored 0.45 punitive immigration bills—that was three times more than a lawmaker from a district with no facilities (0.14). “Given that we have all these other variables in there that explain most of the congressional activity, it’s pretty significant,” Collingwood said.

Collingwood and his colleagues want to include data from more Congresses and state legislatures in future research, so it is richer and covers a longer period of time. They also want to better tackle the chicken and egg problem that such studies tend to run into. Did the ICE facilities locate in districts where the congressperson was already quite conservative, and therefore already likely to sponsor such bills? Or, did the legislator introduce these bills because of the facility’s presence? While the researchers account for political ideology to some extent in this study, they’re interested in teasing that cause and effect apart even further in the future. One question they’d like to test: Would a lawmaker’s behavior change if redistricting means that new detention centers are added to their jurisdiction?

“If our theories are right then we would expect to see, before the redistricting and right after the registering, that legislators like that will suddenly sponsor more punitive immigration bills,” Collingwood said.

CityLab recently mapped the detention contracts the federal government has with local jurisdictions as of November 2017. In many of those cases, the contracts rope in private companies for operations. There are also privately owned detention centers around the country that contract directly with federal immigration authorities—and more are likely to emerge in the future. Many communities believe or hope these private companies will improve the economy, Collingwood says; whether or not that’s true, this study raises questions about the consequences of that belief.

“The implication is basically that [prison] companies are pushing policies, and it seems to me that some legislators are responding in kind—not because they think necessarily that this is the right thing to do but because they stand to gain economically,” he said. “Some people are making money off the capture and containment [of immigrants] and that's got a lot of moral issues with it.”

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