The private prison industry has deep roots in the immigrant detention system. In fact, the first for-profit prison contract in the U.S. was awarded in 1983 for an immigrant detention center in Houston.

Big changes in federal law in the 1990’s opened the door for detention to become a primary method of immigration enforcement. And in 1996, new policies expanded mandatory detention without bond to large categories of non-citizens.

The problem grew worse during the post-9/11 era, as prison profiteers gleefully received an influx of a new group of law enforcement targets — Muslim, Arab and South Asian immigrants. 

The for-profit private prison industry has been driving the rapid expansion of the immigrant detention system and their executives haven’t been shy about their reliance on harsh immigration enforcement to prop up their business model. “The main driver of new beds at the federal level continues to be the detention and incarceration of [immigrants],” according to GEO Group CEO George Zoley.  Zoley told this to investors in 2009, the same year as the implementation of an immigrant detention bed quota guaranteed that ever more for-profit prison beds would be filled.

Thousands of people — in fact 34,000 a day — live with the consequences of these policies as they are held in prison-like conditions at immigrant detention centers. Human rights are rountinely violated in these detention centers.

As the for-profit prison industry has increasingly relied on immigration enforcement and detention to drive their profits, Grassroots Leadership has responded by increasing our scrutiny of for-profit immigrant detention and its impact on families and communities.

Grassroots Leadership organizes communities to fight back against detention and deportation both in Texas and nationally. We are proud to have in Central Texas one of the strongest models of advocacy against detention tied to a program for visiting immigrant women in detention. We also look for solutions at the federal level where we are working in coalition with many others for an end to Operation Streamline and the federal immigrant lock-up quota.

Travis County, Texas, has one of the highest deportation rates in the U.S. thanks to the local sheriff’s voluntary cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An average of 19 immigrants a week are deported here. Stopping the deportation dragnet in Travis County would mean stopping the potential detention and deportation of thousands of Austin-area residents. Grassroots Leadership, in coalition with other groups in the Austin-area, is making that happen by engaging in direct action, community education, and dialogue with local elected officials.


On any given day, at least 34,000 people are detained in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to meet an arbitrary lock-up quota dictated by Congress. Stopping the quota would be a giant step forward in ending our reliance on detention. Grassroots Leadership researches and exposes the role of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in enacting the quota contributes to the growing national movement to stop immigrant detention.


Crossing the border was once a matter for civil immigration courts. Now, every day in federal criminal courts along the Southwest border, hundreds of mostly destitute Latino and indigenous Latin American migrants are shackled, charged, convicted and sentenced en masse under the policy called “Operation Streamline.” The program has proven to be a boon for private prisons by funneling tens of thousands of immigrants into federal prisons every year. Through research and advocacy, Grassroots Leadership is fighting for and end to this program.

Texans United for Families, or TUFF, came together during the fight to end family detention at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, just north of Austin. TUFF is a grassroots, all-volunteer-driven project of Grassroots Leadership. We support and coordinate TUFF members in their mission to fight back against immigrant detention and deportation close to home. In response to the influx of Central American families and children seeking refuge at the border, the Obama Administration announced the return of family detention in 2014. TUFF is fighting back to end this inhumane practice. Find out more about the consequences of family detention.

The T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, is one of the hundreds of prisons for immigrants in the U.S. The facility now detains only women, most of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S., but it has a darker past as a place where immigrant families, including young children and babies, were once put behind bars. Shortly after winning the end of family detention at Hutto in 2009, Grassroots Leadership began coordinating visitors to Hutto who made sure that the women there knew they were not forgotten.

In 2009, Grassroots Leadership ran a successful campaign to end family detention at the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor Texas. When the Obama administration announced that it would stop detaining families at Hutto, only 100 family detention beds remained at a small facility in Pennsylvania. However, after the wave of Central American families and children seeking refuge at our border in the summer of 2014, the administration reversed its decision, opening facilities at Artesia, New Mexico; Karnes, Texas, and Dilley, Texas - all run by private prison corporations. While Artesia closed at the end of last year, the number of family detention beds has skyrocketed and is expected to reach over 3,000 by this May. Grassroots Leadership is once again working to end the inhumane policy of family detention.

We believe that people who have been directly affected by incarceration, together with their families, should lead the movement for change in Texas. That’s why we offer intensive community organizing trainings, designed to build on the expertise, experience, and powerful commitment of our members. Graduates of our training become members of our action network where we put our training into practice and advance our mission to end the criminalization of our communities.