Commentary: Immigrant roundups will mostly benefit for-profit prisons

This isn’t about public safety. These aren’t dangerous individuals.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarai Reyes, 9, cries as she speaks with the help of her 4th grade teacher while surrounded by community members who gathered in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in West Valley City on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, to support Maria Santiago Garcia, a single Utah mother of four U.S. born children who faces an impending deportation order.

For the past nine months, the Trump administration has been ramping up arrests and deportations of immigrants in Utah and across America. While the administration talks a great deal about gangs and violent criminals, they are actually indiscriminately rounding up non-violent immigrants with deep ties to American communities. In fact, arrests of undocumented immigrants without a criminal record have spiked 179 percent under the first nine months of President Trump compared to the previous year.

This includes people such as Maria Santiago Garcia, a Utah mother to four U.S. citizens and survivor of severe abuse and violence in Guatemala. Maria’s 9-year-old daughter recently spoke out at a rally to support her mother, saying through tears, “I don’t want my mom to get deported cause I want to have a mom by my side.”

This isn’t about public safety. These aren’t dangerous individuals. No, it’s about an administration intent on expelling as many immigrants from the country as they can using the specter of criminality to justify indiscriminate sweeps and enforcement. But there should be no mistaking this fact: In our name and with our taxpayer dollars, we are separating families, splitting apart moms from kids and boosting the stock price of private prison companies in the process.

Now, the Trump administration is aiming to put its existing efforts into overdrive — and they are asking Utah to help. As USA Today recently reported, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seeking a massive expansion of its federal immigration jails. The Salt Lake City region is being proposed as one of the new locations for a detention facility capable of housing 200 to 600 immigrant detainees at a time. Judging by what we’ve seen for the past nine months, we can expect that any new beds would be filled with more hardworking moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas than individuals with intent to harm the community.

Given that Utah’s county jails are at capacity, private prison companies are likely to vie to try and win the contract to construct the new facility. The prospect of building and operating a facility of this size is just one reason the stock prices of the private prison industry have been soaring under President Trump. And yes, there is something off-putting and unseemly about the profit margins of private companies being dependent on the detainment and eventual deportation of our friends, family members and co-workers who often have no criminal history of any kind.

Immigration detention is not intended as a punishment. Instead, it is meant to ensure that individuals would appear for court proceedings or comply with immigration orders. But now, immigration detention is a key plank in the administration’s larger deportation-focused agenda, as well as big business for a host of companies that construct and run detention facilities. Detainees can be separated from their families for years while fighting their case, despite the vast majority posing no flight risk or public safety threat.

It’s time local counties and cities, our congressional delegation and everyday Utahns recognize what is being done in our name and what is being proposed for our backyard. Our society and our state should promote keeping families together — not fund or support detaining and deporting our immigrant neighbors to further a noxious agenda and increase company profit margins.

Brittney Nystrom | ACLU of Utah

Brittney Nystrom is executive director of the ACLU of Utah.

Luis Garza |Comunidades Unidas

Luis Garza is executive director of Comunidades Unidas.