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Alaskan Native American Company Profits from Immigrant Detention

by Christopher Zoukis

Under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), guards at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas are provided by Ahtna Support and Training Services – a subsidiary of Ahtna, Inc., which is one of 13 Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) created by Congress for the benefit of Alaskan Native peoples. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.38]. But with the Port Isabel facility holding some immigrant parents forcibly separated from their children by ICE under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, Ahtna finds itself trapped in a public relations quandary.

Parallels between the administration’s policy and the federal government’s historic forced separation of Native Americans, both children from their families and tribes from their ancestral lands, are problematic for Ahtna.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) released a statement strongly condemning the Trump administration’s “forced separation of immigrant children from their families,” calling the policy a reminder of “a dark period for many Native American families.”

“For decades, the U.S. government stole Native children from their parents and forced them into boarding schools hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away,” NCAI president Jefferson Keel said in a June 2018 statement.

“Our communities know too well the intergenerational psychological trauma that will flow from the actions that the United States is taking today,” he continued, calling on Congress and the President to “take heed of such abhorrent mistakes from the past and actually live the moral values this country proclaims to embody by immediately ending this policy and reuniting the affected children with their parents.”

Keel concluded by saying, “Families belong together.”

Corporate officials at Ahtna issued a press release to call out what they said were inaccuracies and misrepresentations in news reports. The company pointed to its exemplary audit results and extensive guard training, also taking pains to explain it is not a federally-recognized tribe – it is instead an ANC established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Ahtna also denied that its Port Isabel contract supports the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, a claim that other Native American leaders called into question.

“Personally, I see this sort of business venture as deeply problematic,” one member of the Temagami First Nation said.

Multiple comments on Ahtna’s Facebook page echoed that sentiment. One commenter, Ophelia Bunns, wrote, “Cut ties! Why be a cog in this machine?”

The company’s mission statement vows “to provide responsible economic growth for future generations of Ahtna people.” An examination of the federal government’s contracts database found other ANCs were also working with ICE.

A subsidiary of NANA, the successor to the Northwest Arctic Native Association, received a $22 million contract to manage ICE’s Krome detention facility near Miami, plus another $8 million to provide support services at an ICE detention facility in upstate New York. A subsidiary of Bering Straits Native Corporation received a $700,000 contract for armed ground transport. Another ANC subsidiary runs an ICE detention center near San Pedro, California.

Through the federal Small Business Administration’s 8A program, bidders for government contracts are given preference if the company is at least 51% owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged” individuals, which include Native Americans. Under the program, most ANCs have contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense, though some have also landed work with the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE.

Ahtna’s contract to operate the Port Isabel Detention Center, which has an option to extend through 2022, is worth at least $800 million.

In a 2014 lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, former Port Isabel guard Israel Cortez claimed he saw “alarming corruption and violations of basic human rights” during the four years he was employed at the facility. 

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Sources: www.newsmaven.io, www.alaskapublic.org, www.thedailybeast.com, www.muckrock.com, www.ahtna-inc.com