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SB 1070: It’s All About the Benjamins

The controversial Arizona law that triggered a nationwide wave of anti-immigrant legislation was always a multipurpose measure. While SB 1070 is both an oppressive enforcement mechanism and a shockingly effective political tool, it is also a ridiculously successful moneymaker—generating a virtually endless stream of immigrants to fill Arizona’s thriving private prison industry.

That, in itself, isn’t terribly surprising. More noteworthy, as a new NPR investigation reveals, is the pivotal—and underhanded—role that prison industry titans played in crafting the pernicious legislation.

The investigation found that a “conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group” called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) collectively drafted the model legislation that became SB 1070. Much of the Arizona state legislature claims membership to the nonprofit group, including Arizona state senator Russell Pearce (R), one of SB1070’s sponsors and most vocal defendant.

Other notable ALEC members include multi-billion dollar corporations eager to rub elbows with and influence conservative lawmakers: The National Rifle Association, ExxonMobil, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—the largest private prison company in the nation.

While Pearce claims to be the brains behind SB 1070, the NPR piece argues that Pearce and CCA worked closely on drafting the model legislation that would become SB 1070:

According to Corrections Corporation of America reports reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrantdetention is their next big market. Last year, they wrote that they expect to bring in "a significant portion of our revenues" from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that detains illegal immigrants.

In the conference room, the group decided they would turn the immigration idea into a model bill. They discussed and debated language. Then, they voted on it.

"There were no 'no' votes," Pearce said. "I never had one person speak up in objection to this model legislation."

Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona's immigration law.

But Pearce vehemently denies NPR’s narrative, which was fleshed out from interviews with anonymous sources, lobbying documents, corporate records and campaign finance reports. The controversial lawmaker instead claims that CCA’s alleged involvement in crafting the bill was exaggerated by NPR researchers and that the overall timeline “is a lie.”

Despite Pearce’s bloviating, NPR’s version of the SB 1070 story is well-backed by other media outlets who have done the research. Think Progress, whose reporters have been following this story well before the NPR investigation broke, similarly connected Pearce to CCA and ALEC—even including a link to ALEC’s January/February 2010 newsletter, which summarizes the model legislation on page 15.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), one of SB 1070’s most vocal—if least coherent—proponents has also been closely linked to CCA; her campaign chair and policy advisor, Chuck Coughlin, is a lobbyist for the company—as was her communications director, Paul Senseman (whose wife, incidentally, still lobbies for CCA). That’s a hell of a coincidence.

Pearce’s denouncement of the NPR story might have more teeth to it if he didn’t have such a glaring track record of public deceit. After repeating the same bogus statistics about rising Latino crime rates, for example, CNN finally fact-checked him following an interview with Tony Harris last spring, and confirmed that most of his talking points were made up or grossly exaggerated. Politifact moreover gave him a “pants on fire” rating for comments he made about SB 1070’s popularity among Hispanics.

Besides, CCA doubtlessly stands to gain everything from increased immigration detention. The business of detaining immigrants is so profitable, in fact, that its expansion actually saved CCA from imminent bankruptcy in 2004, according to a report byStephanie Mencimer atMother Jones.

Just how lucrative is immigration detention? Each detainee costs the federal government approximately $122 per day—about $1.7 billion per year, while detention alternatives cost a mere $12 per day.

Given the record numbers of immigrants being mandatorily detained every year (nearly 400,000 in fiscal year 2010 [PDF]), immigration detention is a booming business. Because the federal government doesn’t have the capacity to house the masses of people it regularly detains, the majority of detention beds are outsourced to municipal prisons and private facilities, like those operated by CCA.

To keep up with the exponential growth of the immigrant detainee population, Congress has been allocating additional funds for detention beds at staggering rate: $104 million in FY 2006, $241 million in FY 2007, and $250.4 million in FY 2008.

Optimistic about increasing profits even further, CCA has taken its model legislation across the country. Think Progress has pointed out CCA’s inceptive ties to anti-immigrant bills proposed in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania—even including a link to ALEC’s January/February 2010 newsletter, which summarizes the model legislation on page 15.

A while back Rachel Maddow exposed the racist roots of SB 1070, revealing its authors’ connections to white supremacist hate groups—a critical fact that should not be underestimated. But the roots of SB 1070, and other bills modeled on it, clearly run much deeper than its creators’ nativist zeal. Like most pernicious forces in society, SB 1070 is propelled by a long and surreptitious money trail.

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