(AP) MIAMI - The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation's largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns.
The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years with government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually.
After a decade of expansion, the sprawling private system is largely controlled by just three companies.
The growth is far from over, despite the dramatic drop in illegal immigration in recent years. In 2011, nearly half the beds in the nation's civil detention system were in private facilities with little federal oversight, up from just 10 percent a decade ago.
The detention centers are located in cities and remote areas alike, often in low-slung buildings surrounded by chain-link fences and razor wire. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detain men, women and children suspected of violating civil immigration laws at these facilities. Most of those held at the 250 sites nationwide are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, but some green card holders, asylum seekers and others are also there.
The companies also have raked in cash from subsidiaries that provide health care and transportation. And they are holding more immigrants convicted of federal crimes.
The financial boom, which has helped save some of these companies from the brink of bankruptcy, has occurred even though federal officials acknowledge privatization isn't necessarily cheaper.
This seismic shift toward a privatized system happened quietly. While Congress' unsuccessful efforts to overhaul immigration laws drew headlines and sparked massive demonstrations, lawmakers' negotiations to boost detention dollars received far less attention.
The industry's giants - Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. - have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the last decade, the AP found.
CCA and GEO, who manage most private detention centers, insist they aren't trying to influence immigration policy to make more money, and their lobbying and campaign donations have been legal.
"As a matter of long-standing corporate policy, CCA does not lobby on issues that would determine the basis for an individual's detention or incarceration," CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email to the AP. The company has a website dedicated to debunking such allegations.
GEO, which was part of The Wackenhut Corp. security firm until 2003, and Management and Training Corp. declined repeated interview requests.
Advocates for immigrants are skeptical of claims that the lobbying is not meant to influence policy.
"That's a lot of money to listen quietly," said Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, who has helped lead a campaign to encourage large banks and mutual funds to divest from the prison companies.
The total average nightly cost to taxpayers to detain an illegal immigrant, including health care and guards' salaries, is about $166, ICE confirmed only after the AP calculated that figure and presented it to the agency.
That's up from $80 in 2004. ICE said the $80 didn't include all of the same costs but declined to provide details.
Pedro Guzman is among those who have passed through the private detention centers. He was brought to the U.S. by his Guatemalan mother at age 8. He was working and living here legally under temporary protected status but was detained after missing an appearance for an asylum application his mother had filed for him. Officials ordered him deported.
Although he was married to a U.S. citizen, ICE considered him a flight risk and locked him up in 2009: first at a private detention facility run by CCA in Georgia and eventually at CCA's Stewart Detention Center, south of Atlanta. Guzman spent 19 months in Stewart until he was finally granted legal permanent residency.
"It's a millionaire's business, and they are living off profits from each one of the people who go through there every single night," said Guzman. "It's our money that we earn as taxpayers every day that goes to finance this."
The federal government stepped up detentions of illegal immigrants in the 1990s as the number of people crossing the border soared. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring many more illegal immigrants be locked up. But it wasn't until 2005 - as the corrections companies' lobbying efforts reached their zenith - that ICE got a major boost. Between 2005 and 2007, the agency's budget jumped from $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion, adding more than $5 million for custody operations.