As President Donald Trump cracks down on immigration, GEO Group, one of the nation's largest private-prison companies, has been quietly ramping up its lobbying efforts with the GOP.
The Boca Raton, Florida-based company paid Ballard Partners, one of the most influential lobbying firms in Washington, a whopping $120,000 to lobby on its behalf for "public-private partnerships in correctional services," according to second quarter reports.
Ballard Partners is run by Brian Ballard, who was a leading fundraiser for Trump's 2016 campaign and was named regional vice chairman of the RNC finance leadership team a year later.
As the White House tightens restrictions on legal and illegal immigration, the administration is looking to expand detention centers for immigrants caught illegally crossing the southern border.
With more than 73% of immigration detention centers run by private prison companies, that would likely mean more business for GEO and its competitors. The growth comes amid a public outcry over poor conditions and recent deaths at these facilities.
"They're lobbying so that the government can give them more dollars," said Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union. "They're just making a profit out of detaining people."
A GEO Group spokesperson said in an email that the company "has never advocated for or against, nor have we ever played a role in setting criminal justice or immigration enforcement policies."
The spokesperson added, "The services we provide today are in no way different from the high quality, professional services we provided for eight years under President Obama's administration."
GEO Group's annual lobbying expenditures doubled from $560,000 to $1 million from 2015 to 2016. It hit an all-time high of $1.7 million in 2017. GEO Group has continued to pay Ballard Partners hundreds of thousand dollars since Trump's election, according to lobbying disclosure reports.
Ballard Partners did not respond to request a comment.
GEO Group receives more taxpayer dollars for immigration detention services than any other contractor of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency, according to a study from the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants. In 2017, GEO received $184 million, followed by CoreCivic, which received $135 million from the government for immigration detention related services, according to the study. That's up from $137 million and $100 million respectively in 2016.
GEO is valued at more than $2.3 billion. It's share price is down about 15% in 2019.
Twenty-four immigrants have died while in ICE custody under the Trump administration, according to NBC News. Under the Obama administration, the death rate among immigrants in detention averaged 2.3 per 100,000 detainees annually. That number has gone up under Trump, to 3 per 100,000.
GEO Group has had a long history of problems in its facilities and is facing litigation in several states on charges of poor conditions and a lack of safe and humane treatment. Recently, alleged medical abuse led to the death of a detainee at its detention center in Aurora, Colorado.
ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House did not respond to request a comment.
The backlash over conditions at its centers hasn't stopped GEO Group from donating thousands of dollars to Republican politicians and lobbying firms.
The Trump Victory Committee did not respond to request a comment.
The company has long given more to Republicans. Its political action committee donated $252,405 to Republicans versus $35,940 to Democrats in 2016. In 2014, the PAC donated $65,100 to Republicans, nearly double the $35,500 to Democrats.
Democratic presidential candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke have proposed measures to restrict private prisons.
Trump, however, is a supporter. His administration early on revoked President Barack Obama's initiative to phase out private prisons. And it is expanding immigration detention centers across the nation.
GEO Group's lobbying efforts reveals the company's desire to have a bigger "footprint" in the criminal justice world, the ACLU's Maes said.
Mary Small, legislative director at progressive nonprofit Indivisible, said immigration detention centers were privatized long before the Trump administration. But under this administration, the increase in the number of centers means more lucrative contracts for private prison companies like GEO Group.
"It's a win-win-win for everybody in the contracting structure," Small said. "It's not a win for the American taxpayer, nor is it a win for the people who are affected by the immigration detention. I think there is a connection between policy change and corporate profits that should really concern folks."
Clarification: This story was updated to compare average death rates per 100,000 immigrants in detention during the Obama and Trump administrations.