WASHINGTON – The military contractor that built the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and jails throughout Iraq has been tapped to construct facilities in the United States to be used in the event of "an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S."
The contract has sparked wide speculation that massive prisons are going to be built to detain illegal immigrants or even U.S citizens, fears that government officials say are unfounded.
“Our national immigration reform debate is going on real hot and heavy and there are conspiracy theories out there that we are building concentration camps,” said Clay Church, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This contract has nothing to do with that whatsoever.”
The contract, awarded in January to Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of defense contractor Halliburton Co., pays the company to establish and provide support for “temporary detention and processing capabilities to augment existing ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) Program facilities in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs,” according to a Halliburton press release.
A contingency in the deal says construction would only begin after an "emergency" is declared. At that point, KBR would get a maximum of $385 million over five years to build the facilities, say officials at the Army Corps of Engineers, which is executing the contract for ICE. The contract, however, does not mean a massive construction project is underway, they say.
For now, KBR is to receive an estimated $450,000 annually for administrative costs, Church said.
The contract is nearly identical to one held by KBR from 2000 to 2005, but the new one is expanded so that KBR would provide assistance in the wake of a national emergency, such as a “national disaster,” said Church. In this case, KBR could provide housing for government personnel assisting in relief efforts, he said.
“We have this contract sitting on the shelf, ready to do things, to have quick response capability,” said Church.
Critics say they are troubled over the deal for myriad reasons and question the timing of the contract, arguing the administration may plan to use these facilities to begin rounding up illegal immigrants — a belief that comes as Congress debates tighter border security enforcement efforts and the public views illegal immigration as a very serious problem in the United States
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and fellow member Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in February asking, in part, what defined an immigration "emergency.”
Thompson told FOXNews.com that he was unsatisfied with DHS's response, received in a May 23 letter. The letter defines, but does not limit, an immigration "emergency" to "humanitarian interventions, mass migrations, populations rapidly arriving in the United States, and other unforeseen situations." It adds that "in no event will any entity other than DHS declare an 'immigration emergency.'"
"An emergency is basically anything DHS deems an emergency — we think that’s too broad of an interpretation of an emergency and a contract that large should have more safeguards built in to protect all parties concerned," Thompson said, noting that he is also bothered that no other company came forward to bid on the project.
Thompson added that the Homeland Security Committee did not have a crack at this contract and he only found out about it from reading newspapers accounts. He said he had no idea whether the deal has anything to do with the lack of detention centers for the current illegal immigration problem, but it shouldn't.
"We all acknowledge that in present day there is a dire need for beds. But if we are releasing people because we don't have beds, let's build some extra facilities — that's a construction contract," he said. "But when we see this kind of contract... it raised concern on our parts."
Several congressmen and governors have already declared illegal immigration on the southwest border an “emergency," though the House and Senate have yet to hammer out differences in their two immigration reform bills, both of which include monies to build new detention facilities.
On Tuesday, President Bush, joined by Chertoff and David Aguilar, chief of the Office of Border Patrol, called on Congress to complete its immigration negotiations. He also said the Border Patrol, which has been expanded from about 9,000 agents to 12,000 agents, is getting "new infrastructures" on the border, including detention centers aimed to help end “catch and release” practices, where illegals detained in this country are released after arrest because authorities don’t have the space in which to hold and process them.
"We're going to end that practice. And the way you end it is you build more detention facilities," Bush said during a speech in Artesia, N.M., outside a Border Patrol training facility.
"See, part of the problem is we didn't have a place to hold these folks. And so now I'm working with Congress to increase the number of detention facilities along our borders to make sure that when we catch somebody from a place other than Mexico there's a place to hold them until such time as we send them back to their country," he said.
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, 1.2 million people were arrested trying to enter the country illegally in 2005. Of the 70 percent released into U.S. communities with an order to return for deportation hearings, only 18 percent showed up later.
Fears of Alternative Uses
Dean Boyd, spokesman for ICE, said the KBR contract has nothing to do with the need to add more beds to the existing detention and processing centers. Bush’s 2007 fiscal budget request includes funding for 27,000 more beds and “this contract has nothing to do with that.”
“This specific contract is in the event of a mass emergency,” he said. Church said a mass influx of political refugees from a neighboring country, for instance, something akin to the Mariel Boat Lift, which brought approximately 125,000 Cubans into the country during a nine-month period in 1980, would be the type of event to trigger this contract.
Meanwhile, critics like Joe Richey, a freelance journalist whose writings about the KBR contract for liberal Web news site AlterNet.org, have been sponsored by the Nation Institute, said the contract smacks of privatizing immigration enforcement. He said he's afraid business interests are driving an already massive corporate prison system in the United States.
He also pointed to what he says is Halliburton’s spotty record in Iraq. Numerous government audits and investigations have been conducted into alleged overcharging and unsubstantiated costs related to the more than $15 billion already made by KBR through U.S contracts in Iraq.
“Their past performance should disqualify them for these kinds of contracts,” Richey said of the KBR contract. “This is costing our taxpayers enormously.”
Halliburton officials have repeatedly downplayed the numerous audits of their work in Iraq and would not comment further for this story.
Church said the Army Corps of Engineers has no reason to doubt KBR’s past performance and ability. “KBR does have some very unique and very qualified things they do,” he said, adding that the Army Corps has been “happy” with KBR’s work
“Are there other companies out there that could provide the services at the same level of KBR? I don’t know,” he said.
Meanwhile, other liberal-minded critics say they suspect these new KBR-entrusted "emergency" centers have no other purpose than to deal with the current illegal immigration crisis.
“The greater question is, what is the government planning to do with mass roundups of people?” said Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive magazine. “The involvement of private military contracts in what ought to be public law enforcement matters, that raises all sorts of questions. This should be discussed with Americans out in the open.”
But those who have no problem with Halliburton or KBR and who are increasingly concerned with the scope of the illegal immigration problem say detention centers may be just what the government needs right now.
“More detention beds will be necessary especially if other governors declare an emergency,” said Phil Kent, executive director of the Americans for Immigration Control Foundation, suggesting that too much of the burden for detaining illegal immigrants rest with local sheriffs and police.
Despite the skepticism, Conniff said she does not think Bush is supporting a roundup of illegals. “I think [the Bush administration] would see the size of this public relations problem with building these detention centers; it would be hard for me to see that happening nor would I think the president would want to see that,” she said.
However, Coniff said the whole idea of domestic processing centers conjures the image of Japanese internment camps during World War II, where Asian-Americans were imprisoned during the hostilities. With a global War on Terror, fears rise about a hostile overreaction to Middle Eastern-Americans or even anti-war protestors.
“There is no reason why the climate of fear in this country couldn’t lead to that again,” Conniff said.
Doug Kmiec, a professor of law at Pepperdine University, called the internment camp analogy “more paranoia than reality.”
“It seems more logical to see this contract as something related to (Hurricane) Katrina. We have to have relocation centers for people which are safe and can provide basic services to people for longer periods of time,” he said, adding that another potential “emergency“ is a bird flu outbreak that could spur a mass quarantine of Americans.
“This is far from being a plan for Japanese internment redux,” said Kmiec. “This is something that the government should be applauded for, for anticipating something that may be inevitable.”