For some Alaska Native corporations, immigrant detention is big business

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement police officer making an arrest. (Wikimedia commons photo)

Some of the outrage over the separation of families at the southern border has spilled over to the government contractors who work in migrant detention and several of those contracting companies are Alaska Native corporations.

Alaska Public Media’s Washington correspondent Liz Ruskin spoke with Zachariah Hughes to explain why that is.

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HUGHES: So to start out, what kinds of work are these companies doing?

RUSKIN: Well, I combed through the government contracts database to find out what kind of work they did. So I looked at recent contracts for ICE. I found a NANA subsidiary that got a $22 million contract for detention management at Krome. That’s an ICE detention  facility near Miami. The same subsidiary got a contract of $8 million for detention support services in Upstate New York. There was an AHTNA subsidiary that got a recent ICE contract for $35 million to provide guard services at a facility in Texas. And another Alaska Native corporation subsidiary runs an ICE detention center in San Pedro, California. Also, I saw one for armed ground transport — $700,000, one of the smaller ones — and it went to a Bering Straits Native corporation subsidiary.

HUGHES: Liz, a lot of these terms sound kind of vague. I mean, is there more details available in the records that you’re looking at for what a lot of these functions actually are?

RUSKIN: No, there’s not a lot of detail in the database, so, you know, I don’t know. By the size of the contract, I can sort of assume that one of these corporations isn’t running the whole facility because the contract amount is too small. So I don’t know if when they say guard services, they mean across the whole facility or are they only guarding the perimeter. You know, there’s just a lot of details that aren’t in this database.

HUGHES: And that brings up another question. I saw an article by The Daily Beast recently about AHTNA, saying that the company got $800 million to run a detention center in Texas. Is that the full picture?

(Editor’s note: AHTNA released a statement disputing some of the reporting in The Daily Beast story).

RUSKIN: Well, I don’t doubt their story, but I didn’t see an $800 million contract to run one center. They have, over the years, had hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from ICE, but I didn’t see one for that amount. So I’m not sure how they’re adding it up to get to $800 million. But there’s a lot of room in this database to slice and dice in different ways.

HUGHES: Well, a lot of the numbers that you mentioned are still pretty big even if they’re not $800 million. This seems like quite a bit of money coming into ANCs from federal contracts, isn’t it?

RUSKIN: Well, yeah, but the important thing to know, these are big contracts, but of course when a company gets a contract to, say, run an ICE detention facility, then they have to hire all the people that are actually going to run the detention facility. So it’s not like it’s all profit coming to the ANC.

HUGHES: Why is it ANCs that are doing so much of this work?

RUSKIN: A lot of the ANCs got into government contract work because through the 8A program, the small business program, ANCs can get sole-source contracts of unlimited size. So, a lot of the Native corporations got into government contracting through that program. And mostly, they’ve been contracting with the Department of Defense and I discovered today that Homeland Security is the next biggest one. It’s well behind Department of Defense, but quite a few Native corporation subsidiaries have Homeland Security contracts.

HUGHES: And what have you heard from some of the ANCs that are involved in this contracting?

RUSKIN: I actually didn’t reach a single ANC. I did talk to someone who’s peripherally involved in Native contracting, and the word that I got is their contracts specifically say that they can’t talk to the press. So it’s perhaps not too surprising.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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