But any immigration reform bill will be shaped by Congress—and the impact of reform on detention and incarceration still hangs in the balance. Divisions have already emerged between the White House and the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight about the crucial path to citizenship. One key difference is that the Gang of Eight—which includes McCain and Rubio—has proposed that the Homeland Security department must certify that the border is secure before any undocumented immigrants can get green cards.
One reporter, Seth Freed Wessler of the progressive media site Colorlines.com, has suggested that as negotiations unfold, reform might even increase the numbers of immigrants being imprisoned. A concern among Democratic staffers and immigrant advocates, Wessler wrote, is that Republicans may insist on more enforcement—such as, perhaps, an expansion of Operation Streamline—in exchange for agreeing to a path to citizenship.
Provisions to expand the population facing mandatory detention and deportation—for example, adding categories such as suspected gang members—are another means by which comprehensive reform might lead to more immigrants being detained, Wessler said in an interview.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University, said he thought it was unlikely that legislators would seek to exert much influence over executive-branch enforcement programs such as Operation Streamline and Secure Communities.
But, Chishti said, “McCain will want to stay relevant in the Gang of Eight, so he’ll want to put his preferred items in the enforcement agenda.” And in general, lawmakers “could start introducing elements in the legislation saying these are triggers that indicate the borders are secure.”
CCA, for its part, has said it anticipates continued strong demand from the government, regardless of whether a reform bill is passed. A subsequent article by Wessler quoted CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger telling investors last week that while the profile of ICE detainees may change over time, “I think their general belief is there’s always going to be a demand for beds.”
But the murkiness of reform’s impact on the industry is one of the features that makes this such a compelling—and challenging—story. In the coming weeks and months, reporters will be tracking the flurry of competing reform proposals coming from lawmakers, and the ways that those proposals reflect the priorities of competing interest groups. As the story of immigration reform gets told, let’s not forget about an industry that has more than a few dollars at stake.
Jose Robledo contributed reporting for this story.
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