Privatization of Detention Centers Puts Human Rights at Risk

Today, privatized detention facilities have an ever-increasing influence over immigration policy and control measures due to rising rates of detainees in the system.  According to the Detention Watch Network, the annual number of immigrants detained and the costs to keep them has doubled in the last five years (Detention Watch Network, 2011).  The three major competing corporations are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation. While public detention centers have to comply with government rules and regulations, private corporations are self-interested and profit-driven, which leads to higher rates of rights violations.  The role of detention centers is changing as private corporations advocate for stricter immigration laws.  Stricter laws, means more arrests and over-crowding in detention facilities, mistreatment of workers and detainees, as well as increasing costs to tax payers.  By looking critically at the privatization of detention centers and the problems associated with them we can advocate for change.

The public should be aware of the role of private corporations and the ways they seek to turn a profit at the sake of human detainees.  Since 9/11, the number of detainees has skyrocketed (Detention Watch Network, 2011). Private prison corporations make big profits from immigrant detention.  In 2010 the annual revenue for the CCA was $1.69 billion, and the revenue for the GEO group was $1.17 billion (Detention Watch Network). These corporations stand to benefit from cracking down on immigration control similar to corporations involved in war. Private corporations now provide 49 percent of the beds for immigrant detainees (Detention Watch Network, 2011).  The CCA and GEO Group help the government by taking over the industry because they can do the job for less.  However, in an effort to cut their costs, their facilities are understaffed and overcrowded.

Detainees experience prolonged detention, insufficient medical treatment, sexual abuse, and other human rights violations (Detention Watch Network, 2011).  Conditions for the workers aren’t much better considering they pay lower than the government, have less benefits, and therefore a high turnover rate.

Additionally, as a business, corporations are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, which protects them from acknowledging these violations (, 2006).  The Detention Watch Network states, “The private prison industry has been very explicit about its intention to influence immigration detention policy and practice in accordance with its own profit motive” (2011). Private corporations spend thousands of dollars lobbying state representatives and government entities, and were very influential in the drafting and passing of Arizona SB 1070.

It is expensive to house detainees, and how much of it is necessary?  Immigrants can be detained for months to years in inhumane conditions.  The cost for one detainee a day is $166 (Math of Immigration Detention, 2011).  Taxpayers could save more than $1.6 billion if only individuals convicted of serious crimes were detained. However, most detainees were arrested for non-violent crimes (Math of Immigration Detention, 2011).  Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supposed to prioritize its limited detention resources to

primarily combat the most serious offenses, 65% of all immigrants who were detained and deported from 1996 to 2006 were detained after being arrested for non-violent offenses (

Detention centers are also said to be ineffective and counterproductive in deterring immigration (;  According to the ACLU and Detention Watch Network, alternative, more humane, forms of monitoring immigrants outside of detention facilities cost as little as $12 per day.  Additionally, over half of the immigrant detainees have no criminal record (  As a result, families and individuals suffer in detention centers, being held unnecessarily for prolonged periods of time while the CCA, the GEO Group, and other private corporations make huge profits and advocate for stricter immigration laws.



2011. “The Influence of the Private Prison Industry in Immigration Detention.”

Detention Watch Network. Retrieved May 4, 2012 (

“Ten Things IDC Research Found About Immigration Detention.” International

Detention Coalition. Retrieved May 4, 2012 (

2011. “The Math of Immigration Detention: Runaway Costs for Immigration

Detention Do Not Add Up to Sensible Policies.” National Immigration Forum. Retrieved May 4, 2012 (

2011. “The Money Trail.” Detention Watch Network. Retrieved May 4, 2012


2011. “Securely Insecure: The Real Costs, Consequences, and Human Face of

Immigration Detention.” ACLU Georgia Detention Watch. Retrieved May 4, 2012 (


Bilingual Education: A Historical Perspective

Language is an important indicator of immigrants’ incorporation into U.S society, and is central to many debates about current immigration. Conversations about assimilation to the English-speaking mainstream often hearken back to the early twentieth century as a time when immigrant language outcomes were more linear—claiming that all immigrants readily learned English and left their native languages behind. In contrast, proponents of contemporary English-only policies portray modern day immigrants as resistant to English and desperate to maintain their native languages. This line of thinking ignores history, and highlights a common misconception surrounding immigrants’ relationship with language and schooling.

In reality, immigrants have always had a complicated relationship with language—struggling to balance English assimilation and native language retention. Bilingual education is one way that immigrants have sought to establish that balance, and has also been an important way that immigrants have attempted to access equal educational opportunities.

Shining the spotlight on immigrant education in the early twentieth century reveals the long history of bilingualism in U.S schools, and helps shatter myths and misconceptions surrounding immigrants’ schooling and language use. Examining the historical roots of bilingual education illuminates the many forms it has taken, and helps to contextualize modern-day bilingual programs. Understanding bilingual education’s historical purposes is helpful as we continue to discuss the merits of bilingualism today.

History has shaped our ideas about immigrants in schools, and has influenced attitudes towards bilingual schooling. Historical myths have also been critical to the United States’ bilingual education policies. There is a pervasive mythology in American society that schools provide immigrants with opportunity and access to the American mainstream, even the ‘American Dream.’ Michael Olneck discusses the far-reaching power of this mythology:

Among the central legends of American history is that of the immigrant and the school. The myth that—through schooling—early twentieth century European immigrants to the United States were afforded and embraced unparalleled opportunities to achieve social mobility and ‘become American,’ has shaped responses to persisting poverty among African Americans, informed contemporary education policy toward ‘English Language Learners,’ and, generally, stood as an object lesson for how success in America is available to all (2008: 103). 

This myth has shaped the way Americans have viewed immigrant education, and has informed policies and teaching practices that have defined the experiences of immigrants in United States schools. However, the mythology surrounding immigrants in schools stands in striking contrast with the reality of the struggles faced by students, educators, and policy makers as immigrants enrolled in U.S public schools in increasing numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The overwhelming influx of immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century posed many challenges to the U.S education system. Students, educators, and policy makers did not know how to react as immigrants poured into United States schools.  In her book, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, Paula Fass describes how the infusion of immigrants into schools during the twentieth century redefined the purposes of American education (1989: 6).  Fass emphasizes the challenges this influx of immigrants presented to traditional ideas about the purposes of schooling, and discusses the way school policies were “strongly informed by contemporary perceptions about immigrants” (22).  In a society that was increasingly pluralistic, schools became even more important instruments of socialization, providing “remedial socialization” for students who were considered outsiders (6). This was particularly true for students who were linguistic outsiders, set apart from the English-speaking mainstream.

Language was often at the center of debates about the purposes of schooling. As the unprecedented number of immigrants flooded into the U.S at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, a wide array of languages surged into the country as well, creating new diversity in America’s linguistic landscape. While it is true that most public schools did not accommodate diverse language needs, immigrants still found ways to incorporate native languages into their children’s education. Language schools were a means by which immigrants facilitated linguistic and cultural retention and helped create environments where their children could learn. In her book Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in American 1880-1925, Melissa Klapper identifies three major categories of language schools: parochial or church schools, nationalist schools, and cultural or heritage schools (2007: 93). These different types of schools emphasized homeland language, religion, and culture, creating environments where immigrant students could still experience and learn about important elements of their identities. Klapper argues that language schools “helped immigrant families come to terms with the demands of Americanization,” by offering a way for immigrant children to advance academically while also preserving their cultural and linguistic heritage (101).

The widespread presence of language schools illustrates immigrants’ desires for educational spaces that allowed for native language retention and provided their children with enhanced educational opportunities. Some progressive school districts even allowed for native language instruction within public school buildings (Klapper, 2007: 101). Other schools incorporated foreign languages into daily instruction as a way to help immigrants acclimate to American, English-dominated schooling. This narrative runs counter to the misconception that early immigrants did not prioritize native language maintenance or bilingual education opportunities. Though modern-day opponents of bilingualism portray turn-of-the-century immigrants as ready to jump enthusiastically into the English-speaking melting pot, a historical perspective tells us otherwise. Bilingualism benefited these early immigrant students, who often lived in vibrant ethnic enclaves where their native languages were essential for everyday life. While these immigrant children learned English at extremely high rates, bilingual education and native language retention were important to them.

Looking at these early attempts to find a place for native languages in American schooling provides an important counter-narrative to the myths and misconceptions that are often used as fodder for contemporary anti-bilingualism activism. Immigrants have always sought to incorporate their native languages into American schooling and life, not at the expense of learning English, but rather as a way to access educational opportunities, express their ethnic identities, and carve out a place for themselves within American society.

Today, the fastest growing population in U.S schools is children of immigrants. Half of the students in this rapidly growing group are English-language learners (Calderón et. al., 2011). In their article, “Effective Instruction for English Learners,” Calderón, Slavin, and Sánchez argue that “wide and persistent achievement disparities between English learners and English-proficient students show clearly… that schools must address the language, literacy, and academic needs of English learners more effectively”(103). Like the immigrants of the early twentieth century, immigrants today have a complex relationship with language, especially in educational contexts. We need to rethink our national policies toward bilingual education, and recognize that immigrants’ desires for bilingual education and native language maintenance are not new trends- rather, they are the continuation of a long history of bilingualism and linguistic diversity in the United States.

Works Cited

Calderón, Margarita, Robert Slavin, and Marta Sánchez. 2011. “Effective Instruction for English Learners.” The Future of Children 21(1): 103-127.

Fass, Paula. Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Olneck, Michael R. “American Public Schooling and European Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century: A Post-Revisionist Synthesis” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J., and Rury, John. L. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Klapper, Melissa. Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880-1925. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Reese, William J., and Rury, John L., eds. Rethinking the History of American Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillam, 2008.


Some Interesting Links:

Rethinking Schools—Bilingual Education Resources 

Timeline: The Bilingual Education Controversy 

Evolution of Important Events in California Bilingual Education Policy 

“Why Bilinguals are Smarter”