As the recent family separation policy demonstrates, President Donald Trump wears his zeal for immigration enforcement on his sleeve. Some of his high-level appointees wear it on their savings accounts: A handful of senior officials placed in law enforcement roles by Trump previously drew their paychecks from companies that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The officials serve in a number of roles in federal law enforcement. Take, for instance, the top federal prosecutor in Indiana, U.S. Attorney Thomas L. Kirsch II, who was sworn in last year to serve in the Justice Department. He previously provided legal services to GEO Group, the sprawling private prison corporation that contracts with ICE to detain immigrants.
At least one official went from working with ICE contractors to working directly as a federal employee. Thomas Blank, the chief of staff at ICE, previously worked as a lobbyist at a firm called Wexler & Walker, where he specialized in helping companies secure security-related contracts before the government. His role there included working for the company now known as Axon, formerly called Taser, which contracts with ICE to supply the once-eponymous stun guns.
At Wexler & Walker, Blank worked for several years with Chad Wolf, who now works at the Department of Homeland Security, which operates ICE, as the chief of staff to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Wolf, for his part, played a role similar to Blank’s, providing lobbying services for a variety of ICE contractors, including Harris Corp., a technology firm that provides surveillance equipment, as well as Axon.
Asked to comment on the former lobbyists’ roles at DHS, a spokesperson from the department said, in an email, “Pursuant to the Ethics Pledge restrictions on incoming lobbyists, as well as the Standards of Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, no DHS employee has any conflicts of interest. All of them serve, and will continue to serve, DHS and the American people with honor and integrity.”(None of the other government agencies nor the private businesses the officials worked for responded to requests for comment.)
The Department of Homeland Security is staffed by others who were on the contractor dole. Lora Ries, an adviser to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who has called for increased “interior enforcement” against undocumented immigrants, previously worked for several DHS contractors as a lobbyist. Ries, in her most recent position before joining the Trump administration, worked as an industry strategist for CSRA, a technology firm that provides the controversial “GangNet” database solution used by ICE to target suspected gang members.
There are more former ICE contractors at the Justice Department, too. Daniel Clayton Mosteller, the U.S. marshal for South Dakota, appointed last October by Trump, previously worked for Forfeiture Support Associates, a private firm that contracts with ICE and other federal agencies to process assets seized by the government.
Private businesses have long taken advantage of the steady growth of security policies aimed at tracking, detaining, and deporting people from the country. They saw a windfall in the Trump era. Industry groups involved in surveillance, border security, and immigration enforcement and detention have eagerly told investors that they are poised to benefit from the president’s agenda. But they have been far from passive political actors. Several firms have stepped up campaign contributions to Republicans and groups viewed as friendly to Trump. Few are as brazen as the private prison industry.
GEO Group stands out as one of the only major publicly traded companies that openly supported Trump’s presidential bid. The Florida-based private prison firm gave generously in support of pro-Trump Super PACs. After the election, GEO Group donated to the inauguration fund and, over the last year, contributed $300,000 to various Super PACs set up to support congressional Republicans. Last year, the company moved its annual leadership conference to a Miami-area golf resort owned by Trump.
Like other firms involved in immigrant detention and surveillance, GEO Group has told investors that it stands to gain from the administration’s policies. During a conference call with investors in April, GEO Group chief executive George Zoley said his company will seek opportunities “as the president will be asking for a significant increase in the detention bed capacity for ICE.” The company now receives nearly a quarter of its revenue from ICE, up from only 10 percent a decade ago.
The role of private contractors has become the focus of fierce debate. In recent weeks, Microsoft and Thomson Reuters have come under fire for their role in providing technological solutions to ICE. But the firms that profit from the immigration enforcement agency not only have political support from the White House; many of their former lobbyists and consultants now occupy the upper echelons of the Trump administration.