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• The Business of Immigration Detention: Highlights and Lessons from our Recent Webinar

August 21 2018
August 21 2018

The widespread outcry surrounding immigrant family separations over the last few months has refocused attention on the business of private immigrant detention in the U.S. To examine this billion-dollar business and embolden investors to take action in support of a more just system, Confluence Philanthropy partnered with Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees to host a webinar on the subject.

Pat Tomaino, Director of Socially Responsible Investing at Zevin Asset Management, moderated the call and put the conversation into perspective right away with a disturbing fact: at last count, the ICE detention population was nearly 40,000. What Pat did not point out is that this number includes thousands of children separated from their families, many of whom have yet to be reunited with their parents.

To focus the conversation and help participants better understand the immigrant detention “ecosystem,” Pat clarified the range of actors involved: private prison companies, contractors and consultants, technology providers, financial institutions, and peripheral actors, including real estate companies and community development institutions. Though many investors might focus on divesting from private prison companies, very few realize the breadth of institutions associated with immigrant detention or realize that they may be supporting them.

Illustrating the complexity of immigrant detention infrastructure and the institutions that profit from it, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice then shared findings from their recent case study: More Than a Jail. The case study concentrated on the Glade County Detention Center (GCDC), located in a county where 13% of adults are behind bars. In exploring the story, Jacob Kang-Brown and Jack Norton were troubled by the underlying motives of the County and the private investors involved. In 2007, based on assurances that ICE would rent facility beds for detained immigrants, Glade County used tax-exempt bonds, made possible by a non-profit corporation created solely for the purpose of financing the project, to build a new jail with more beds than the county could fill. OppenheimerFunds, a large mutual fund firm with investments in other detention centers throughout the country, bought a majority stake in GCDC. In 2014, ICE failed to fill beds and the prison was almost shuttered. Yet, under the Trump administration, business has been brisk, with over 450 immigrants currently detained in the facility.

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of General Service Foundation (GSF), shareddimple her experience as an investor to illuminate the process by which a foundation concerned with immigrant rights could ensure that their investment portfolio was not funding private detention centers like the GCDC. For Dimple, the process of ensuring GSF was not invested in any private detention centers was relatively straightforward. She contacted the foundation’s advisors—both GSF’s impact portfolio consultant and their overall investment consultant—and asked that they immediately ensure that none of GSF’s money connected; very quickly, she received an all clear. However, Dimple’s larger story emphasized the importance of developing strong, mission-centric relationships with advisors. That way, when the time comes to screen a portfolio, or divest, the advisor is already aligned with their client’s vision.

Building off of General Service Foundation’s experience and the input of the other panelists, Pat offered a few key tools for investors interested in taking action. In addition to highlighting a few investor groups, such as the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which focus on the issue of immigration detention as well as private prisons, Pat recommended that foundations and other institutional investors take the following steps:

  1. Develop an Investment Policy

  2. Talk to your money managers and consultants about portfolio holdings and shareholder advocacy strategies such as proxy voting

  3. Seek information on portfolio exposure and opportunities for impact

  4. Join with fellow asset owners to push companies and money managers

These strategies can be useful for investors across the spectrum, whether they are already divested and ready to do more, or new to the issue and looking for a place to start.


The webinar was hosted as a feature of Confluence’s Active Owners Program. If you would like to learn more about strategies your foundation can utilize surrounding private immigration detention centers, contact Senior Advisor Program Manager Hannah Erickson: hannah (at) confluencephilanthropy (dot) org.


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