Commentary: Was Arizona's immigration law prompted by private prisons?

Protestors rally against Arizona's immigration restrictions
Protestors rally against Arizona's immigration restrictions Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Arizona's get-tough immigration law was couched as a burst of desert populism, as if the frustrations of local citizens over so many illegals crossing the Mexican border had been translated, word for word, into Senate Bill 1070.

The notion of requiring state and local policemen to lock up suspects who have no proof they entered the country legally also fit nicely with the tea party insurgency erupting across the country.

Politicians in at least a dozen other states, including Florida's Gov.-elect Rick Scott and U.S. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, have talked of emulating Arizona's rebellion. ``Let's get to work, and bring the Arizona law to Florida now,'' Scott said during his gubernatorial campaign.

Something else lurks behind this spontaneous desert populism. Something not so very spontaneous.

A National Public Radio investigation has traced the origins of SB 1070 to a template contrived at a December meeting in Washington, D.C., by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-sponsored ``information'' gathering that most of us would mistake as a plush junket for state lawmakers, financed by corporate lobbyists.

NPR found that one of ALEC's corporate sponsors, Corrections Corporation of America, which operates private prisons in 19 states, was particularly interested in pushing the get-tough immigration legislation.

CCA, according to the company's own reports, projects ``a significant portion of our revenues'' coming from locking up illegal immigrants. With national crime rates down and prison populations shrinking, illegal immigration has become a crucial segment for the private prison industry.

By the way, Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, anti-immigration folk hero and chief sponsor of SB 1070, attended the December meeting of ALEC and went home with model legislation for an immigration crackdown.

The private prison industry already has plenty of lobbying muscle in Florida. In 2008, House Speaker Ray Sansom (since disgraced, arrested and ousted) inserted $113 million into the budget for a 2,000-bed private prison along the Blackwater River in Milton, despite the state's financial crisis.

Except when the Blackwater River prison was finished the Department of Corrections didn't have the excess prisoners to fill it up. The new prison sat empty.

Lobbyists went to work. Legislation passed last spring required the Department of Corrections to move 2,224 inmates into the 2,000-bed facility (making it even more profitable) and to guarantee GEO Group of Boca Raton that Blackwater would stay at least 90 percent full.

Private prisons, our legislators claim (even as GEO poured $236,000 into state political campaigns this year) save taxpayers money. But a study by the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy released in April discovered ``simply no data to suggest that's true,'' study author John Hall told me Monday.

Private prisons, he said, can claim lower per-prisoner costs because they supervise a less-dangerous, less-troublesome, less-expensive class of prisoners.

Hall also raised doubts about rehabilitation efforts in private prisons.

``The private prison industry has no incentive to reduce crime. Only to lock up more prisoners,'' he said.

Under that business plan, Florida's considerable population of undocumented immigrants, no rehab required, must look like a mighty cash crop -- ready for harvest.

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