$2.26 billion.

That’s how much revenue GEO Group, Inc., a for-profit prison company based in Florida, reported earning in 2017.

With facilities in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and South Africa, the second-largest U.S., private prison operator spends considerable attention and money on lobbying efforts in order to assure that public policy reforms detrimental to its revenues, such as ending the War on Drugs or comprehensive immigration reform, fail. That’s according to Bob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership.

On Monday, local environmental and immigration activists drew attention to U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar’s aggregate campaign contributions of $32,400 from GEO Group, Inc., which currently owns and operates three detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector.

According to FEC filings, The Geo Group, Inc. Political Action Committee made two contributions of $5,000 to Texans for Henry Cuellar Congressional Campaign dated March 31, 2017— one for his primary campaign and another for his general election campaign. Under campaign finance laws, multicandidate PACS may donate a maximum of $5,000 to a given candidate per election.

The scrutiny came as a congressional delegation, led by Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, visited holding and processing facilities in Mcallen and Brownsville Sunday where hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents under the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy are held in chain-link fences while they await transportation to an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility. GEO Group, Inc. offers transportation services for its facilities, which have been spotted transporting asylum-seekers to mass trials in McAllen on buses emblazoned with their logo.

Photo credit: Jonathan Salinas

While lawmakers toured the McAllen facility on Ursula Ave., hundreds gathered to demand an end to family separations, utilizing the hashtag #FamiliesBelongTogether at the vigil organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The vigil was in dedication to Marco Antonio Muñoz, a Honduran asylum-seeker who committed suicide in a holding cell near Granjeno last month shortly after being separated from his wife and three-year-old son.

U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela, who was not part of the delegation, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julián Castro, attended. Both spoke at the rally.

Photo credit: Christopher Kurt Ramirez

Following a tour of the 77,000-square-foot facility, also known as la hielera and la perrera, the delegation composed of Jeff Merkley, D-OR; Peter Welch, D-VT; David Cicilline, D-RI; Mark Pocan, D-WI; Sheila Jackson, D-TX; and Sen. Chris Van Holland, D-MD, took questions from the press and expressed outrage at the situation they had just witnessed.

Photo credit: Christopher Kurt Ramirez

Cuellar was not in attendance Sunday, as he decided to spend it with his aging father, his campaign manager told Neta. He did, however, hold a press conference Monday morning at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce to address the issue of “Family Separations and Border Security.”

Discussing discharge petitions that will bring immigration bills to the floor this week, a meeting with Border Patrol scheduled for later that day, and a stakeholder meeting with CBP regarding ports of entry and bridges, Cuellar took the time to explain his legal view of the current administrative policy of separating children.

“President Trump has been taking this ‘zero-tolerance,’ which is section 1325 [U.S. Code] and saying ‘you have committed a misdemeanor and we’re going to take you through criminal proceedings…and when it’s a criminal aspect, a child can be separated under several reasons,” Cuellar argued.

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He stated that among the reasons are 1) inability to verify the adult is indeed the parent, as they “might be using the child to come in” 2) if there is a threat to the child (“human trafficking,”) and finally 3) if the adult is placed in criminal proceedings.

Additionally arguing that crossing the Rio Grande River places the children at risk, Cuellar coupled that with a plea for asylum seekers to seek help at ports of entry instead. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen offered this argument and explanation identically Monday at a press conference in the White House briefing room not long after Cuellar’s press conference.

Several reports from journalists and human rights activists have recently told of asylum-seekers being turned away by customs officials at U.S. ports of entry on the southern border, supposedly due to a lack of resources and capacity needed to process claims.

These claims themselves are doubted by local advocacy groups with years of experience assisting refugees from central and South America and who instead suspect such claims are a tactic by the administration to force river crossings that would undoubtedly result in more family separations.

Asked about asylum-seekers being turned away, Cuellar replied that after speaking with the Mexican Ambassador on his way to the chamber of commerce, “those are issues that we have to be looking at and coordinating with them,” also announcing support for Mexico as a “third-safe country,” a term referring to countries whom those seeking asylum traveled through before arriving at a U.S. port of entry, such as Mexico, where they could be alternatively-referred for asylum.

Not content with these explanations, Mariana Treviño-Wright, Executive Director of the National Butterfly Center, which is currently suing the Trump Administration after CBP contractors chainsawed its protected habitat to make way for a border wall, urged those in attendance at the press conference to ask Cuellar about accepting money from the private prison company dubbed by the ACLU as a prison profiteer through a Facebook live stream by the No Border Wall Coalition.

Treviño-Wright recently returned from a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. with the Defenders of Wildlife to urge members of Congress to repudiate any funding for construction of a border wall along the southern border. There they were advised to research congressional representatives in order to better influence them on policy decisions, which led her to the votesmart.org page listing Cuellar’s contributors.

“When our policy is crafted for the benefit of for-profit corporations and zero tolerance,” Treviño-Wright told Neta, “it’s outrageous.”

Cuellar has served the 28th Congressional District of Texas since 2005 and is at present the second-highest ranking member of the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which reviews funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the latter of which accounted for 17 percent of GEO’s revenue for 2017— the highest percentage of all other revenue streams.

Responding to the insinuation that Congressman Cuellar would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions, the congressman’s Campaign Manager, Colin Strother, thought it inaccurate and unfair, pointing to Cuellar’s long record of “championing” unaccompanied minors. In 2014, the congressman spoke out against detention centers that held unaccompanied minors during the Obama Administration in similar conditions to the ones seen today, images of which Cuellar famously released in order to show the unsanitary and cramped conditions.

“GEO Group, Inc. is one of the largest employers in the Congressman’s district, so they do what they can to help,” said Strother, adding that the separations of families are “an effort to punish families; it’s awful…”

Asked to reply to the economic justification offered by Cuellar’s office, Treviño-Wright replied, “It comes down to quality of life in your community. What kind of facilities and employers do you want? Do you want the kind of people that just follow orders? That’s basically what I think ICE and Border Patrol are doing at this point unless they enjoy the zero-tolerance policy of striping children from their mothers.”

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On Monday, the world got to hear, for the first time, the sounds and cries of desperation from children separated from their parents at an undisclosed facility. In the leaked audio, a Border Patrol agent can be heard mocking the cries, comparing them to an “orchestra” in need only of a “conductor.” The audio was published by ProPublica and released by RGV-based human rights attorney, Jennifer Harbury, who obtained it from a whistle-blower who she represents.

Perhaps only the individual who occupies the Oval Office could direct such a chorus.

John-Michael Torres, Communications Coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, took to Twitter to call for Cuellar’s return of campaign contributions from GEO Group, listing the phone number to his D.C. office.

In a statement to Neta, Torres said:

It is ridiculous that any member of Congress that seeks to represent the interests and well-being of the residents of the RGV, a community that values immigrants, would accept campaign contributions from private companies that profit off the misery of immigrants and children in detention. Congressman Cuellar has continuously denied the requests of his constituents in the RGV to meet with him or his staff regarding immigration and border issues. Perhaps it is because he cares more about the financial well-being of private prisons than the immediate well-being of mixed-status families in his district.

Strother responded to Torres’ comments:

“Mr. Torres is a liar. He was fired from LULAC for lying about Cong. Cuellar. And he is lying about this as well. Cong. Cuellar meets with constituents several times a week on a variety of issues, including immigration. He is the leading voice nationally on immigration, trade, and border issues; any insinuation to the contrary is either willfully ignorant or a blatant lie. Mr. Torres is using Trump tactics like denying facts and I think it is inappropriate.”

Torres has never worked for LULAC, he told Neta when asked to respond to these accusations, adding he did not have time to “gather all the information about the times he ignored or denied our request to meet.”

Such practices by the private prison industry predate the current crisis, however. In 2014, the Faithful Democracy Coalition, a Franciscan action network, published a paper entitled, “For-Profit Prison Corporations & Their Attempt to Influence Immigration Policy” in which they showed how in the aftermath of citizens united “FEC the Supreme Court rolled back meaningful campaign finance laws protecting the voices of individual voters.”

They further demonstrate how contrary to public statements attempting to show GEO Group, Inc. did not try influencing legislation during the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform debate, they did so through their lobbyists:

“In April 2013 as the Senate undertook immigration reform, Geo’s quarterly lobbying disclosures show it hired a firm to lobby Congress on “issues related to comprehensive immigration reform.”11 Yet Geo claimed, “(t)he Geo Group has never directly or indirectly lobbied to influence immigration policy. We have not discussed any immigration reform related matters with any members of Congress, and we will not participate in the current immigration reform debate.”

They conclude: “For-profit prison corporations see enormous financial growth when federal policies they encourage result in heightened immigrant detentions. When liberty and human rights are on the line, members of Congress should be guided by a moral voice and not lured by the siren call of private corporations seeking to boost revenue.”