The choice to hire Wackenhut Corporation--which also runs three detention facilities in Arizona--is sending a shudder through immigrant-rights circles, where advocates say the company's past of prisoner neglect and abuse should disqualify it from working in a sensitive border area.
The change took place quietly last October in Tucson and involves the nation's entire border with Mexico as part of a five-year, $250 million deal between the United States Customs and Border Protection agency and Wackenhut, the domestic subsidiary of the U.K.-based security giant Group 4 Securicor.
What's odd is that a portion of our nation's border security was taken away from the Border Patrol and handed over to a private company without much notice from media or officials--despite national attention on the area and even a recent visit from the president. In fact, Border Patrol officials still know very little about the Wackenhut workers.
Stranger still is that Wackenhut was given a contract to work with the U.S. Border Patrol the same year they were fired for providing inadequate security at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the parent organization of, ironically enough, the U.S. Border Patrol.
The first Wackenhut buses roll into the Mariposa port of entry west of Nogales early. Sidearms strapped to their waists, the uniformed security workers usher groups of migrants off the buses and into the morning sun. The buses then loop around and head out for another load.
Jim Hawkins, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, says this is how the vast majority of the 2,000 immigrants detained here each day are removed from American soil, a task formerly left to Border Patrol agents.
"What we've done is basically turn over all of our transportation to this contractor," Hawkins said. "We're so busy in this sector that it took a lot of agents to do the transportation part. Pretty much every time we had to put an agent on a bus, we had to take an agent out of the field, where they're really needed."
The Border Patrol made 418,184 arrests along the nation's southern border from last October through March, compared to 594,142 apprehensions during the same period the year before.
Hawkins said agents have integrated well with Wackenhut workers, but couldn't say how many Wackenhut employees had been assigned here or what type of training they received. When asked if they carried sidearms, Hawkins said they did, but could not say what kind.
All other questions, he said, would have to be answered by Wackenhut.
"These guys are great; they're helping us so much out here," he said. "They come to us knowing everything they need to know."
Shannon Stevens, also a spokesperson for the Border Patrol, said information about Wackenhut's training or performance standards was not available from her agency, but said the security workers are "definitely expected to be incredibly professional out there, just as we would be." She, too, directed all other questions about the workers back to Wackenhut.
The company's main office for the borderland project--which includes all of the nation's southern border--is located in Tucson at 4905 E. 29th St., where officials referred all questions to the national Wackenhut office in Florida. A spokesman there referred all inquiries to an online press release or the Border Patrol.
"I just don't feel the need to respond to negative comments about our organization. We know the realities, and there will always be those who are more than willing to cast dispersions upon others," wrote Wackenhut spokesman Marc Shapiro, via e-mail. "Back and forth 'he said, she said' might make for a good article, but it's senseless in my opinion and will take time and resources that I just can't devote to it now," Shapiro wrote in the e-mail.
According to the August 2006 press release, Wackenhut's contract involves "guard and transportation" services for the United States Customs and Border Protection agency.
The agreement provides for an initial deployment of 100 buses and more than 270 armed security personnel from the company's Custom Protection Division to cover the "transportation" aspect of the agreement. No figures are given as to what the "guard" portion will entail.
"The contract will have a fully dedicated project management team to provide all operational, training, recruiting and administrative support," according to the release.
No information was available as to what training the workers receive or where they will be assigned.
The privatization of this formerly federal job has caused alarm among immigration-rights groups.
"My concerns when companies like Wackenhut take over these things is that there can be little or no governmental oversight," said Kerri Sherlock of the Washington, D.C.-based Rights Working Group, a national coalition of organizations that work for the legal rights of detained immigrants.
"We have many, many cases of widespread abuse and many deaths in the private, for-profit detention industry, including those run by Wackenhut," Sherlock said. "I find it troubling, because you have to have good oversight by the government to enforce the federal regulations relating to these companies."
Unlike federal agencies, privately owned organizations may not be required to release information under the Freedom of Information Act, Sherlock said, making it even more difficult to identify and resolve violations.
Sherlock had not heard of the decision to use Wackenhut at the border, but said the company has been at the heart of numerous cases involving allegations of abuse, excessive detainment times and neglect.
Local humanitarian workers also voiced concerns that human-rights abuses could slip through the cracks or go unreported altogether with Wackenhut on the border.
"The No. 1 thing is accountability," said the Rev. John Fife at a meeting of the humanitarian group No More Deaths, adding that Wackenhut employees do not allow members of the group to aid or talk to detained immigrants.
"What standards are they expected to meet, and how can we actually get some accountability from them?" Fife said. "And with their human rights history, globally, how did they ever qualify for this contract?"
Wackenhut was founded in 1954 and has held contracts to guard numerous notable government installations, including the Kennedy Space Center, according to an obituary about the company's founder, George Wackenhut, published by The Washington Post after his 2004 death. The company has protected nuclear reactors, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and even the infamous Area 51 in Nevada.
Wackenhut's contract to provide security at DHS headquarters was canceled last year following a mishandled anthrax threat and allegations of poor training, underguarded building entrances and malfunctioning detection equipment, according to an April 2006 report published in Congressional Quarterly, a Washington, D.C.-based political publication.
In 1999, Wackenhut was stripped of a $12-million-a-year contract in Texas and fined $625,000 for failing to live up to agreements for running a state jail. Several guards were indicted for having sex with female inmates.
In April of the same year, the state of Louisiana took over a 15-month-old juvenile prison operated by Wackenhut after the U.S. Justice Department accused Wackenhut of subjecting young inmates to "excessive abuse and neglect."
Again in 1999, a New Mexico legislative report called for a near-total revamp of prison operations, including two run by Wackenhut.
In 2003, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation changed its name to The GEO Group Inc., which operates three correctional facilities in Arizona.