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Opinion: The Dream 30, a congressman and private prisons

With the news of the Dream 30 continuing to dominate the immigration reform debate this past week, a new twist to the public border action has emerged.

On Monday the group of 36 immigration activists who crossed the Texas-Mexico border in Laredo to protest record deportations by the Obama administration and call for Congress to move on immigration reform, hit a roadblock when the action’s organizers asked that Texas congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who favors immigration reform and represents Laredo, write a letter to President Obama asking him to expedite the release of the 27 individuals still being detained.

Cuellar would not support the group, a part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA). As a local Laredo news report said, “Cuellar told us [Tuesday night] that he was opposed to the methods used by what he called professional activists who support the Dreamers movement. He told us that minors are being put at risk to make a political statement.” Reports of minors participating in the action did cause a stir, since some believed that it was putting these kids’ lives at risk. Though, as The New Yorker points out, those minors in question traveled with their parents, there are still concerns as to whether their requests for asylum will ever get honored.

The reaction to Cuellar’s initial decision led to a video conference meeting with NIYA as well as a sit-in at Cuellar’s Laredo office, where, according to reports, a local deputy arrived and escorted people out of the building. No arrests were made.

In light of these events, NIYA and other groups supporting the Dream 30 revealed public financial information that The GEO Group (annual report), one of the world’s largest private prison companies that literally makes a profit from the detention of undocumented immigrants in the United States (see “Immigrants for Sale”), is one of Cuellar’s campaign contributors. The Texas Tribune listed The GEO Group as one of Cuellar’s top campaign contributors from the last election cycle.

So, as they say in politics, the optics are not good.

Here is a Democratic congressman from a border town who favors immigration reform and The DREAM Act, but also receives money from a company that runs immigrant detention centers for the U.S. government. In the United States, according to one study, “the number of privately-held immigrants grew by 188 percent to 13,927 detainees” from 2002 to 2012.

When I reached out to Cuellar’s office in Washington this week, his press secretary told me he was unavailable, but provided me with a blog post that confirms what I had already discovered. Since 2009, Cuellar’s campaign has received over $30,000 from The Geo Group. The blog post shared by Cuellar’s office makes the claim that The Geo Group, which runs the Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo (a facility it built before Cuellar became a congressman) “is a large employer in Representative Cuellar’s District and not unlike many other large employers in Representative Cuellar’s District, donated to his campaign.  However, the total contributions by GEO are miniscule within each campaign cycle and in total.”

Sure, that is one way to spin it.

Here is another: Cuellar gets money from private prison companies that detain immigrants and separate families.

You would think that in the grander scheme of things, not taking over $30,000 when Cuellar’s campaign has gotten over 6 million dollars in contributions would be a wise choice. Why take it from this one company, yes, the very same company that tried to get naming rights on a college football stadium but then backed off after pressure from groups?

When I tried to reach the Congressman again, Cuellar’s office shared a news transcript that included the following: “According to representatives of the National Immigration Youth Alliance, the minor who crossed without an adult was transported to Arizona, and apparently he will be reunited with his parents in California.”

Cuellar’s office also shared the following photo of the video conference he had with NIYA members:

CREDIT: Office of Rep. Mike Cuellar

CREDIT: Office of Rep. Mike Cuellar

But the questions I had for congressman Cuellar went beyond the Dream 30 or their tactics, or even his views on immigration reform.

The Geo Group, although it does not run the El Paso facility where some of the Dream 30 are detained, is still part of the immigrant detention world.

You would think that a champion of immigration reform  and The DREAM Act would refuse contributions from this company. That is the issue that I hope Cuellar answers sooner rather than later.


  1. Reblogged this on Franky Benítez and commented:

    My latest for NBC Latino.

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