Editor’s note: This report is one in a series by the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s diverse communities. The story was written in collaboration with Reveal, the website of The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Just shy of his third year in the United States, 24-year-old oil pipeline worker Diego Navarro said goodbye to his California friends. It was early April, and the Oklahoma resident was anxious to return home, having used a break in his busy work schedule to make the trip west.
Navarro typically worked 10- to 14-hour days as part of the country’s petroleum processing machine.
But as he was driving back to Oklahoma with a friend, that all changed at a gas station near Albuquerque, where Navarro was swept up in the billion-dollar business of private immigrant detention.
Navarro had gone into the bathroom at the gas station. By the time he walked out, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had surrounded his friend. More agents appeared and approached Navarro, asking both young men for their IDs and accusing them of trafficking drugs.
ICE officials did not address repeated questions about the incident. But immigration court records for Navarro, who had entered the U.S. from Mexico without documentation in 2014, show that after searching the vehicle and finding nothing, agents arrested the men, alleging they were in the country without authorization.
“I felt humiliated,” Navarro said in an interview. “I kept saying, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ ”
Like thousands of immigrants detained since the start of the year, Navarro soon found himself locked up inside a complex run by CoreCivic, the country’s second-largest for-profit prison contractor with 84 correctional properties, according to the company’s most recent quarterly earnings report. From federal and state prisons to county jails and community-based halfway houses, CoreCivic’s facilities run the gamut of American incarceration.
Business with ICE exploded for the company — formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America — in 2014, when there was a surge in Central American asylum seekers arriving at the border. CoreCivic’s percentage of total revenue from ICE more than doubled in the two years that followed. Stock prices soared after the election of Donald Trump, who vowed during his presidential campaign to deport the entire estimated population of 11 million unauthorized immigrants.
In October 2016, CoreCivic landed an ICE deal in New Mexico by repurposing a federal prison, the 1,129-bed Cibola County Correctional Center.
Inmate deaths at the facility involving medical neglect came to light last year, prompting the federal Bureau of Prisons to cancel its contract with CoreCivic — part of a drive to minimize its use of private prisons.
Conversely, reliance on private prisons under ICE has grown. The agency commenced talks with CoreCivic to adopt the Cibola center soon after the Bureau of Prisons ended its contract. The new deal, heralded as a job savior, came without any mention from local officials about the prior inmate deaths under CoreCivic’s watch.
Following his run-in with agents, Navarro would be confined there for seven weeks.
His experiences offer a rare glimpse into the expanding apparatus of detention and deportation. It is a system that increasingly is privatized, contracted out and chaotic — one in which immigrants are arrested, detained and sporadically transferred among facilities, where deportations can be ordered via videoconference by judges hundreds of miles away and carried out in the middle of the night.
For CoreCivic, a single facility in the immigrant detention system represents big business. To date, the company has nine dedicated ICE centers and at least three other prisons under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service where ICE detainees are held.
According to contracts and billing documents, CoreCivic will be paid $150 million for detaining immigrants at Cibola over the course of a five-year arrangement with county officials and ICE — a deal that amounts to a no-bid contract. Agreements between government entities do not entail the competitive open bid process required of private companies seeking government business. In this case, Cibola County serves only as a pass-through payment mechanism for federal funds to flow from ICE to CoreCivic.
In March, ICE began sending millions of dollars to Cibola County, which in turn forwards the money to CoreCivic.
The deal allows Cibola County — where more than a third of households live on less than $25,000 a year — to retain a minuscule portion of the funds as an administrative fee.
According to the subcontract, the county keeps 50 cents per detainee per day, while CoreCivic, a $3.7 billion company, receives a fixed payment of $2.5 million monthly, whether zero or 847 detainees are being held. (At 848, ICE pays $55.43 per additional detainee per day.)
Documents show daily counts ranging between 268 and 784 detainees over March, April and May. Neither the warden nor ICE responded to multiple requests for the current detainee population.
‘Everybody except for the detained people wins’
The setup reflects national trends, according to Mary Small, policy director for the Detention Watch Network, a national watchdog and advocacy organization. She said the pairing of an agreement between government entities alongside a subcontract with a private corporation is “the single most common model in the entire immigration detention system.”
“Everybody except for the detained people wins,” Small said. “ICE likes it because they don’t have to go through a competitive open-bid process, which is also the same reason why the private companies like it. The local governments like it because in most cases, they get a small cut of money as the contracting middleman.”
With the help of the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, Navarro secured an unlikely reprieve. Granted release on a $7,500 bond as his case makes its way through immigration court, he walked out of the detention center in late May.
He started out again for Oklahoma via Greyhound, feeling thankful for the freedom, however fleeting.
An examination of hundreds of documents from the beginning of January through mid-February 2017 shows that at least 185 immigrants were deported from the facility during that time. Immigration court has no corollary role of a public defender, and without appointed counsel to represent them, most people face removal proceedings alone. Others remain trapped in legal limbo, according to pro bono lawyers who visit the Cibola County Correctional Center regularly. Asylum seekers do not qualify to be released on bond, nor do detainees who don’t have legal residents to sponsor them.
Navarro did have a sponsor, and his family was able to pay a bail fee that other immigrants typically cannot afford.
Prospects are looking up for detainees, though, following an Oct. 2 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals mandating affordable bonds.
Questionable deaths exposed
While the inmates’ fates are uncertain, profits for the corporation detaining them are secure — despite evidence of several questionable deaths at CoreCivic-run centers.
At the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, 53-year-old inmate Anthony Mancini died from coronary artery disease in 2011 after being given cough syrup and Tums to treat his symptoms, according to a wrongful death lawsuit that was settled Sept. 6.
And in early 2016, an investigative series on medical neglect in private federal prisons, published by The Nation, exposed three Cibola deaths in which federal monitors had noted sustained neglect or deficient care. By July 2016, the Bureau of Prisons had canceled its contract for the facility.
Within three months, the new arrangement among Cibola County, ICE and CoreCivic was announced with scant opportunity for debate. Media reports show the proposal was discussed behind closed doors, and county commissioners disclosed the deal just after they approved it.
ICE and CoreCivic representatives did not respond to requests to visit New Mexico’s Cibola facility or to multiple inquiries as to how ICE detainees there are ensured proper medical care.
Cibola County provided an amendment to its agreement with ICE that cites plans to ensure adequate on-site health care. But Correct Care Solutions, the for-profit vendor now providing medical care at the Cibola facility, has been named in two New Mexico lawsuits alleging medical neglect in detainee deaths at county jails.
Deportations from ‘immigrant-friendly’ Albuquerque
The immigrant detention profits made by CoreCivic in Cibola County are of a curious character — being reaped in a county that is more than one-third Hispanic or Latino and in a state where politicians have been largely critical of ramped-up immigration enforcement and removal initiatives, including the proposed border wall and threatened sanctions on sanctuary cities.
In Albuquerque, the City Council passed a resolution in February to affirm the city’s “immigrant-friendly” status. A similar resolution at the county level was reaffirmed in August.
Still, data show that deportations take place from Albuquerque, often in the middle of the night. CoreCivic is paid an additional $97,638 per month for regular transports, including runs between the Cibola County ICE facility and the airport tarmac, five days a week.
ICE transport log data, covering January and February, offer a snapshot of 342 deportees flown out of New Mexico, whose criminal histories run counter to Trump’s February statement that “for the first time, we’re getting gang members out. We’re getting drug lords out. We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country.”
In every instance, ICE data indicate the person had no gang involvement.
More than 88 percent of the immigrants, 302 people, had no criminal record beyond entering the country without authorization, sometimes repeatedly.
Twenty-two people — about 6 percent of the total — had serious alleged offenses on their records, ranging from domestic violence to assault, statutory rape, drug dealing and, in one instance, a “terrorist threat.”
The remaining 18 records list charges including DWI, traffic violations and possession of marijuana or cocaine.
Among the 284 detainees who were deported to Guatemala was a pregnant 26-year-old with no criminal history. The other 58 were flown to Honduras.
For then-Cibola County Manager Tony Boyd, who worked as a training and disciplinary hearing officer for CoreCivic from 1998 to 2003, the choice county leadership faced over the facility’s future was clear: economic ruin or the ICE agreement.
As a federal prison, the correctional center employed 300 people, Boyd said. The property also contributed $24,726 to the 2016 county budget via property taxes, public records show.
“The economic consequences of the closure would have extended far beyond those 300 residents, and would have negatively impacted our schools, our stores, and our community at large,” Boyd wrote in an emailed statement.
The future for many Cibola County residents is indeed precarious. More than 15 percent of the county’s workforce of 11,000 was unemployed between 2011 and 2015, based on estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Boyd said his prior work for CoreCivic had no impact on the deals he finalized with the corporation and the federal government.
Regardless, in Cibola County and across the state of New Mexico, the company’s influence is ubiquitous.
Just a few miles away from the Cibola center is another CoreCivic prison, the 596-bed Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center.
In the late ’90s, CoreCivic campaign contributions began flowing to the coffers of the Democratic and Republican parties in New Mexico. From politicians running for Congress to the Governor’s Office on down, scores of candidates and leadership committees have accepted small-scale CoreCivic contributions, including state Rep. Eliseo Alcon and state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, both Cibola County Democrats; Republican Gov. Susana Martinez; Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich; and state House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, whose website describes the Democrat as being “at the forefront of criminal justice reform in New Mexico.”
Different economic choices
New Mexico is more reliant on private prisons than any other state. In 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 42 percent of its state prisoners were held in private prisons. The national figure is 8 percent.
“There’s something very specific to the political culture in New Mexico, to this partnership between government and for-profit prisons, to the relationship to privatization in that state,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank dedicated to criminal justice reform.
Heinrich, the only lawmaker who responded to requests for comment on efforts to keep the Cibola facility open, “does not support the private prison industry, but also doesn’t leave local communities behind,” a spokesman wrote.
According to Porter, “other communities around the country are having similar conversations and are making different choices.”
Porter has analyzed prison closures in 22 states, recently focusing on places where innovative economic development projects filled the void created by prison layoffs. Projects underway include a New York prison repurposed as a movie studio.
“I hope [New Mexico residents] might be encouraged and look closely at those,” Porter said, “because clearly, detention and deportation breaks up families.”
Navarro, for his part, wants to forge ahead with his life back home in Oklahoma. But the threat of his deportation to Mexico looms.
“I just want to keep going forward,” he said. “… I do agree that, yeah, if they want to deport the criminals, OK. But there’s good people that just want to work.
“We’re not here to steal or to rob or to kill,” he said. “We just want to work.”