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Hundreds of California teachers and a handful of left-leaning organizations are urging the state’s $225 billion teacher pension fund to pull its money out of for-profit prison companies and immigrant detention centers.
The petition going to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System is the latest in a string of calls for California public pension funds to divest from controversial industries, such as fossil fuels and guns.
With few exceptions, the pension funds reject appeals for divestment because they prefer to use their clout as major investors to compel industries to change their practices. They also worry that divesting causes them to miss opportunities to earn money, which increases their overall risk.
More than 200 members of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System signed a public letter written by the left-leaning organization Together We Will - San Jose demanding that CalSTRS administrators divest from private prison operators CoreCivic Inc. and the GEO Group, unless the fund can demonstrate that conditions in the prisons have improved during the pension fund’s involvement.
At least 40 other members — meaning teachers or retired teachers — have written separate letters to CalSTRS to encourage the fund to divest from those companies and others involved with immigrant detention since the Trump administration in April began separating children from adults detained at the Mexican border. The Trump administration has since ended that policy and is in the process of reuniting immigrant children with their parents.
Some teachers are expected to made their appeals in person at CalSTRS’ board meeting on Friday. The larger California Public Employees’ Retirement System received 131 identical emails from people who identified themselves as public employees or retirees demanding divestment from companies involved in immigrant detention. Two others wrote unique emails with a similar message.
“As teachers who have worked all our lives to serve children and families, that CalSTRS invests our money in corporations which profit from the destruction of communities — oftentimes the communities we serve — is appalling,” the Together We Will letter reads.
A second letter signed by almost 100 Berkeley school teachers urges divestment from companies involved in immigrant detention.
“This treatment of children goes in opposition to everything we do professionally and is a violation of basic human rights,” the letter reads.
CalSTRS Chief Investment Officer Christopher Ailman on Friday said that he would initiate a review of private prison companies to ensure that the companies did not violate the pension fund’s requirement of respect for human rights.
“It’s complex,” Ailman said. “It’s mostly frankly written for countries, not individual companies. But what that means, basically — we’ve been engaging with the private prison companies for awhile. This means that we’re going to just contribute more resources. We’ll step it up a notch, and travel directly and engage them directly and talk to them.”
CalSTRS invested almost $13 million in the two companies in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The letter claims that CoreCivic Inc. and the GEO Group disregard human rights and civil liberties, violating the CalSTRS ethical conduct policy. Both companies on their websites tout their commitment to providing humane treatment to detained people.
“CoreCivic plays a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system, which we have done for every administration – Democrat and Republican – for more than 30 years,” CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said in a statement. “While we know this is a highly charged, emotional issue for many people, much of the information about our company being shared by special interest groups is wrong and politically motivated, resulting in some investors reaching misguided conclusions about what we do.”
GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said that GEO Group facilities do not host unaccompanied minors and does not advocate for or against government detention policies.
“Members of our team strive to treat all of those entrusted to our care with compassion, dignity and respect. We welcome the opportunity to have an open dialogue with CalSTRS and CalPERS to address the common mischaracterizations of our company’s role and record as a long-standing government services provider,” Paez said in a statement.
Miriam Martín, a professor at DeAnza College in Cupretino who wrote the Together We Will letter, wants CalSTRS to better explain how it’s using its influence as a major investor to improve conditions in detention centers and prisons.
“Regardless of what happens in a classroom, the idea that our pension is invested in a system that’s makes money in a system that profits off kids of color is abhorrent,” she said.
Activists have pushed for the pension funds to divest from controversial industries in the past. Last year, CalPERS and CalSTRS faced calls to liquidate holdings in the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline and the company building President Trump’s proposed border wall. The pension funds did not divest from companies in those projects.
In 2013, teachers persuaded CalSTRS to sell its indirect stake in firearms manufacturer Remington Outdoor, the maker of the assault weapons used in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.
State Treasurer John Chiang led the latest push for the pension funds to divest in 2017. After the October massacre at the Mandaly Bay casino in Las Vegas massacre, he asked the boards to divest from companies that sell guns that are illegal in California. Though neither fund pulled money out of outdoor retailers that sell guns, both reported that they’ve used their clout to press retailers to restrict sales of certain kinds of guns and ammunition.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 1:40 p.m. on July 20 with an update to add Christopher Ailman’s remarks.