The strange business of Alaska Native corporations and ICE immigrant detention
The Inupiaq people of Wales, Alaska, have more than 120 words to describe ice.
Located just below the Arctic Circle, tribal communities in the Bering Straits region are well-acquainted with frozen conditions. Yet among the 8,000 Indigenous Alaskan shareholders who own the Bering Straits Native Corporation, some are unaware that their company staffs an ICE immigrant detention facility in El Paso, Texas.
Some haven’t ever heard of ICE in reference to immigrant detention.
Bering Straits Native Corporation’s subsidiary, Global Precision Systems, is the contractor that staffs El Paso Service Processing Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility that recently had the largest COVID-19 outbreak among detainees in the nation.
“I feel shocked that Bering Straits would have such a controversial subsidiary just to make money for the shareholders,” said a BSNC shareholder and Inupiaq Alaska Native who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the company.
Bering Straits spokesperson Miriam Aarons said GPS had nearly 600 employees working at the El Paso facility as of October 2020, and El Paso job postings for Bering Straits include detention officer, chief security officer, and administrative support.
Since 2015, GPS has held contracts with the Department of Homeland Security valued at $235 million. Bering Straits and other Alaska Native corporations have entered into contracts with ICE worth at least $1 billion since 2012.
Detainees at the El Paso ICE facility staffed by Bering Straits’ subsidiary have raised alarms about repeated sexual assault by guards, ongoing medical neglect, and have attempted hunger striking and letter writing campaigns in order to draw attention to dire conditions within the facility.
Bering Straits Native Corporation has not responded to numerous interview requests from El Paso Matters to discuss its contract with ICE, instead issuing a brief statement.
“GPS strives for excellence and professionalism in operating the El Paso Service Processing Center. We work to ensure that all individuals who are placed in our care are treated with dignity and respect,” the statement said.
Any mention of ICE is scant on Bering Straits’ website, nor is it mentioned on their 2018 annual report. Instead, the corporation’s branded documents often emphasize the culture and values of Alaska Natives — the landing page of their website features a smiling Alaska Native woman wearing a traditional Yup’ik beaded fur headdress.
From the border of Mexico to the border of Russia
As the crow flies, Diomede, Alaska, is 3,461 miles away from El Paso, Texas.
Although Little Diomede Island is part of the United States, it sits in the middle of the Bering Strait, just two miles (and across the international date line) from the Russian island Big Diomede. The Native Inuit people of the island primarily have a subsistence livelihood; hunting walrus had been a staple for them until recently. Climate change lowered the walrus population in the area, causing residents to focus on ice fishing for crab.
“I don’t see anything that you can tie (Diomede and El Paso) together with,” said Francis Ozenna, tribal coordinator of the Native Village of Diomede. But she is a Bering Straits shareholder, and therefore is part owner of the corporation whose subsidiary staffs the El Paso ICE detention facility.
The dividends she receives from Bering Straits are derived, in part, from labor done at the El Paso facility. Alaska Natives like Ozenna receive or inherit shares in their regional Alaska Native corporation. The average Bering Straits shareholder who owns 100 shares would have received $833 in dividends in 2020, according to a BSNC announcement.
Ozenna hadn’t heard of ICE detention facilities before El Paso Matters reached out to her. She is, however, familiar with the hardships of life on an international borderline, living at the “ice curtain,” and separated from her family members on the Russian side — a problem familiar to many in the El Paso-Juárez metroplex.
“I do know how it feels to be separated between countries because I live here. … Diomede has always had a struggle because of borders,” Ozenna said.
The remoteness of places like Diomede from the southern border of the United States means that shareholders in the Bering Straits Native Corporation have less reason to be familiar with ongoing issues associated with ICE immigrant detention. “We’re really disconnected from a lot of things, we’re sort of used to that,” Ozenna said.
Technological limitations heighten the disconnect. Diomede has no cable television, and the internet is spotty and slow for the residents who have internet service at all, Ozenna said.
While shareholders are the owners of Bering Straits Native Corporation, they may lack access to information about the actual business conduct of the corporation, not the least of which because it is scarcely mentioned in Bering Straits’ public-facing language.
“In my personal experience, there wasn’t any concerted effort to keep the business activities (of BSNC) from shareholders,” said Ruth Dan, a shareholder and Central Yup’ik Alaska Native who interned at Bering Straits. “I don’t think they really needed to if they wanted to, because the business activities of Bering Straits are just so far removed from the day-to-day lives of Bering Straits shareholders.”
For Indigenous Alaskans, the economic structure of Alaska Native corporations are not only foreign and disconnected from their immediate lives, but “colonial,” Dan said.
“The Alaska Native Corporation system was meant as a tool of assimilation,” she said. “It’s not very common for Alaska Natives to know what’s really going on with their corporation. They just sort of expect it to work.”
Indigenous immigrants are especially vulnerable to harm
Like the shareholders of Bering Straits, many of the people held in ICE facilities are Indigenous.
Although Customs and Border Protection and ICE do not track the number of Indigenous people they detain, the bulk of people in ICE detention come from four countries with large Indigenous populations — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. For example, 43.75% of Guatemalans self-identify as Indigenous, and 15.1% of Mexicans are Indigenous.
“Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous migrants are crossing the border, are being apprehended, and are completely invisible in plain sight. Because when we start crossing the border we’re miscategorized and mislabeled as Latino and Hispanic … our Indigenous identity is completely erased,” said Juanita Cabrera Lopez, executive director of the Mayan League and Indigenous Maya Mam from the Western Highlands of Guatemala.
Among an already vulnerable immigrant population, Indigenous immigrants are even more susceptible to potential harm within the U.S. immigration system, she said.
Of the six children who have died after being taken into CBP custody in recent years, five were Indigenous. Claudia Gómez González, a Maya Mam Indigenous woman, was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent in 2018; the investigation into her killing is still unresolved.
Language barriers can have dire implications for immigrants who primarily speak Indigenous languages, particularly when it comes to communicating about medical needs or due process issues.
“At the most basic level, when we are not able to communicate our needs, if we’ve been a victim of violence or crime along the journey, or even the reason why we’re leaving and we’re looking for asylum or other type of immigrant status at the border, we can’t actually communicate it because we can’t speak, and so that affects everything else,” Cabrera Lopez said.
Tribal coalitions have condemned the treatment of Indigenous immigrants within the U.S. immigration system. In 2019, The National Congress of American Indians (including Alaska Native tribal representatives) called on Congress to protect the human rights of Indigenous immigrants. The resolution stated that conditions faced by Indigenous immigrants in Department of Homeland Security custody were a violation of international standards, including the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“It’s almost like Indigenous on Indigenous — I don’t wanna say abuse, but mistreatment, and that’s just wrong,” the BSNC shareholder who asked not to be identified said of ICE facilities operated by Alaska Native companies.
“If Bering Straits is listening, I want them to know that there are many shareholders who disagree with this, we want it shut down,” he said.
BSNC highlights mission of upholding Native Alaskan values
Throughout Bering Straits’ website, Facebook page, and other branded materials, the company’s mission to uphold Alaska Native cultural values is placed front and center.
A 2020 corporate overview video for Bering Straits Native Corporation discusses the work and ethics of the company:
“BSNC is unique because it’s Native-owned, so the corporate culture, the values that we have here, really do mirror Alaskan Native culture,” Malorie Johnson, a human resources technician for Bering Straits, said in the video.
Bering Straits’ website includes a code of ethics that says the company is “committed to preserving the values that have sustained our way of life for thousands of years.”
Referring to controversial ICE policies, such as family separation, the shareholder who asked not to be named said he found BSNC’s stated company values to be hypocritical. “Just the thought of parents being separated from their children over some kind of immigration violation — this is definitely not anything to do with Native, Inupiaq values. It has nothing to do with our traditions.”
Dan said she was shocked when she interned with Bering Straits Native Corporation and discovered that they did contract work with ICE.
“For me, personally, based on my values and what I was raised with, that was very disillusioning,” she said. Dan is the communications team writer for Native Movement, an advocacy organization based in Alaska that works for the rights of Indigenous people worldwide.
“Government contracting with ICE and with certain other US agencies — we as Native Movement have determined that that does go against our Native values and the values that are so core to our cultures and communities,” Dan said.
Alaska Native corporations and accountability
ICE and the Department of Homeland Security bear the primary responsibility for what goes on within their facilities, not the companies they contract to staff them.
Although ICE has the obligation to oversee their facilities and address misconduct, a 2019 report by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security found that ICE fails to hold its contractors accountable.
Furthermore, Alaska Native corporations have special contracting privileges with the federal government that can be advantageous in terms of avoiding accountability.
Created to resolve land claims by Alaska Natives, Alaska Native corporations were established in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 — shares can only be held by Indigenous Alaskans. They are permanently considered small disadvantaged businesses under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program, and are able to remain in the program for as long as they continue creating new subsidiaries, no matter how large the business becomes.
“Because Bering Straits Native Corporation is not a publicly traded company and they don’t have to make the same disclosures to the (Securities and Exchange Commission), there is less incentive for general accountability and transparency,” Dan said.
Alaska Native corporations are exempt from some federal financial disclosure regulations, meaning that they are not held to the same standard for reporting their financial state to their shareholders as publicly traded corporations. A 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that state and federal oversight for financial reporting among Alaska Native corporations is “limited.”
Bering Straits is not the only Alaska Native corporation to do contract work with ICE. Ahtna Inc, NANA Regional Corporation Inc., and K’oyitl’ots’ina Limited, are all Alaska Native regional or village corporations who contract with ICE detention facilities.
An opaque chain of avoiding accountability
In lieu of a substantive response from ICE, public efforts toward transparency and accountability can end up directed toward contractors, some of whom have severed ties with the agency amid growing public pressure.
“Deflecting to contractors is the oldest game in the book,” said Blake Gentry, a researcher whose work has focused on Indigenous immigrants in the U.S. immigration system.
One example of ICE’s lack of transparency involves COVID-19 infections among contract employees at the El Paso Service Processing Center. ICE referred El Paso Matters to the contractor to get that information, who then never provided it.
Detainees have claimed that guards are bringing the virus into the facility and spreading it, and a recent study found that more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases in the El Paso area were caused by ICE’s failure to contain the virus at its facilities.
Despite repeated requests over several months from El Paso Matters, Bering Straits has not provided information regarding the total number of COVID-19 cases among guards and other contract workers at the facility since the start of the pandemic.
While private prison companies have received significant public scrutiny for misconduct at ICE immigrant detention facilities, Alaska Native corporations also hold sizable contracts with ICE facilities, and have been notably absent from recent Congressional efforts toward accountability.
The nature of ICE contracting varies among the nearly 200 ICE detention facilities in the United States. Some are owned and operated by ICE but staffed by contractors, like El Paso Service Processing Center and Bering Straits’ subsidiary GPS, while others are owned and operated by private companies under a direct contract with ICE, like private prison companies Corecivic and Geogroup. Others still are owned by state or local governments, operating within intergovernmental agreements they have with ICE, and some hold a mixture of ICE detainees and “other confined populations.”
Congress reprimanded four private prison companies last July during a hearing on the medical standards at ICE facilities, and a September congressional staff report by the Committee on Oversight and Reform focused on private prison companies in its discussion of medical neglect at ICE facilities, following revelations about forced hysterectomies at an ICE facility in Georgia. The Alaska Native corporations that also contract with ICE were absent from these congressional actions.
During his presidential campaign, President Biden promised to halt the federal government’s use of private prisons, and to “end for-profit detention centers,” but whether that has any implications for federal oversight on Alaska Native corporations who contract with ICE is unclear. Although President Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday ending the federal use of private prisons, it does not apply to ICE detention facilities.
Questions for Bering Straits Native Corporation
Although BSNC President Gail Schubert writes in the foreword to the company’s code of ethics that Bering Straits follows the “highest ethical standards” on behalf of its 8,000 Alaska Native shareholders, the level of transparency provided to shareholders about the corporation’s work with ICE is unclear.
“At what price are these companies and sub-companies seeking to succeed?” asked Thomas Swensen, an Alaska Native and assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah who studies Alaska Native corporations. “This is nothing that I would condone, and I would imagine that your average shareholder in any corporation would not want their corporation to be involved in human rights violations.”
Over the past several months, El Paso Matters has sent numerous requests for interviews with Bering Straits Native Corporation, both through their spokesperson and by emailing individual members of their board of directors. Only one board member responded, saying “I’m unable to do this.”
After speaking with El Paso Matters, BSNC shareholder Francis Ozenna said she wanted to learn more about the conditions of ICE detention and the work that Bering Straits is doing. But she asked, “What controls do we have? And even if we give an opinion, what difference will it make?”
According to Dan and the team at Native Movement, growing shareholder awareness is the first step for taking action about Alaska Native Corporation contracts with ICE.
“It is up to the shareholders of a corporation to hold them accountable. We at Native Movement don’t really have that power, and what we’re trying to do is have shareholders and have Alaska Natives build more awareness about the business activities of their corporations.”
Cover photo: Little Diomede Island, center, in the Bering Straits is home to Alaska Natives. Neighboring Big Diomede Island is part of Russia. Alaska photos in this story are by Ed Gold. See more of his work at www.edgold.co.uk. His photos cannot be republished under a Creative Commons license.