Questions about Akal Security
Phillip Tanzer - Medium - Freelancing from Seattle Aug 26
Should a nonprofit, tax-exempt church oversee a for-profit security contractor tasked with enforcing ICE policies?
Thirty minutes north of Santa Fe, in the high desert town of Española, New Mexico, lie the headquarters of a privately-held security firm whose corporate campus is as unique as the affiliate organizations surrounding it. Akal Security lists its HQ at 7 Infinity Loop, a modest structure just a short walk from the command centers of other linked operations with a global footprint, specifically Sikh Dharma International, Sikhnet, and the 3HO Foundation. The Hacienda de Guru Ram Das Gurdawa is also on site, and the Kundalini Research Institute is just down the street. All are related, but only one (according to its website) has had an ongoing, 20-year working relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This article aims to be respectful of the stated objectives of Sikh Dharma while being severely critical of ICE, and seeks answers to questions about the relationship Akal Security maintains with both.
Akal’s origins are the definition of an American success story: In 1980, when two American (white) Sikhs were told to get a haircut if they wanted to join law enforcement, they instead obtained a $1200 business loan and founded Akal Security, now a billion-dollar empire capitalizing on federal contracts. It’s been raking in that kind of cash for decades. But what really sets Akal apart from fellow government contractors isn’t so much a turbaned CEO as it is the company’s operation as a for-profit under the umbrella of the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, a conglomerate of for-profit and nonprofit entities all folded into a nonprofit that lists itself as a tax-exempt church. (As of this writing, the SSSCorp’s most recent Executive Director’s Report, dated April 2018, is online, with a powerpoint presentation available for download. A page on the site with flowcharts detail how the hierarchy in Española oversees a dozen operations spanning three continents. An abridged schematic is presented below.)
Akal Security has been in business since the end of the Carter administration, and has, along with its subsidiary Coastal International Security, executed countless federal contracts for the DoD and Justice Department, the State Department, DHS, and other government entities. Courthouses around the country are guarded by Akal officers, and the Judicial Branch accounts for the majority of the $113 million Akal made in 2017 directly from federal contracts. A smaller percentage describes the work it does on behalf of the TSA (if you fly out of Orlando, BWI, or Kansas City, those are Akal employees screening you and patting you down). But it’s money they continue to make from ICE — the millions that pass through other contractors, for which they partner with or subcontract under — that is the basis of the further scrutiny presented here.
Akal has worked with ICE (and the INS before it) for 20 years. It said as much in their “Special Statement” released on June 26, in the wake of the uproar over Trump’s family separation policy.
These contracts primarily focused on two specialized needs: detention management and transportation (guarding detainees at ICE detention or processing centers) and as aviation security officers (receiving detainees from ICE custody, usually on the tarmac, sometimes chained, handcuffed, or shackled, sometimes not, and guarding those detainees on deportation flights operated by ICE Air).
Akal’s Special Statement
Akal claims it no longer bids on ICE contracts, and that appears as true as it is unnecessary. For over a decade, it has worked as a subcontractor with and/or for three Alaska-based, Native American-owned corporations that secured ICE contracts for detention management. And the company that held the majority of ICE Air contracts since the mid 2000s, CSI Aviation, in turn contracted Akal to provide aviation security officers (ASOs) on those deportation flights. (Regarding CSI and Akal, the nature of their relationship appears to be supported in certain lawsuits brought against Akal by former ASOs; other class action suits and the company’s own archived newsletters describe contracts interacting with ICE directly. Either way, in court docs Akal acknowledges that the contract ran through December 1, 2017.)
Whether directly or indirectly, since 2002 Akal officers have monitored detainees at ICE facilities in AZ, CA, TX, NY, and FL, as well as executed the deportation policies via chartered aircraft for three administrations.
If only the criticism ended there, that of Akal working with ICE, then as now, while maintaining such close ties to a religious organization. It does not. Detaining and shipping migrants is a business, one that profits off of trafficking in human misery. And there are some serious concerns about the way (and why) Akal chooses to be aligned with it.
Contracts in Detention Management Supporting ICE
Back in 2001/2002, before the INS branched into the USCIS, CBP, and ICE, Akal Security signed staffing contracts for three Service Processing Centers, or SPCs: in Florence, AZ; El Centro, CA; and the Krome facility in Miami, FL. Work at Krome began in September 2002; contracts with the other facilities commenced in January 2003.
(I) The Akal contract for the Florence SPC was undertaken with BNC International, Inc., a subsidiary of the Alaskan Bethel Native Corporation. The contract was for just under $12 million a year, with four one-year option renewals.
Along with the simultaneous bid for the El Centro SPC, this appears to be the first time Akal formed a “joint venture” with an Alaska-based, Native American (and hence minority-owned) entity. It’s a safe assumption that Akal finds this arrangement highly desirable, as it has done so five times with three companies, including with its current partner, Akima Global Services, set to run through 2024 at the Krome SPC in Florida.
The financial benefits of setting up an operation in this way are obviously profitable, but left unexplored here. That said, a brief explanation of what constitutes a “minority and economically disadvantaged business enterprise” (and how some leverage that status into a lucrative joint venture worth hundreds of millions of federal dollars), may be found at the sba.gov website.
(And if the name Akima sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because that was an Akima employee flipping off Trump’s motorcade while out biking last year. Akima displayed their integrity in the face of a non-event by bravely forcing her resignation. She’s suing.)
(II) The Akal contract for the El Centro SPC lists dates from April 2001 to June 2009, though court docs state that the work occurred from January 2003 to June 2009. This was another partnership Akal had with the aforementioned BNCI, and this ended with a unique circumstance in the company’s history: Akal lost a $10 million dollar class action suit brought by its own employees in El Centro for unpaid wages, whereupon Akal then sued ICE / the DHS in an attempt to recoup those losses, plus attorney’s fees, for just north of $11 million. It didn’t work. Perhaps noteworthy — maybe this has something to do with why they no longer bid on ICE contracts directly? — but not all that important, as their coffers can certainly “take the L.”
Far more significant (and speaking about money) is that Akal apparently embraced the practice of detainees “volunteering” to be dollar-a-day employees at the El Centro SPC. In a lengthy FOIA pdf furnished by ICE, you need only scroll down a bit to see the Voluntary Work Program Agreement consent forms, written in both English and Spanish.
The practice continued as the contract transferred from Akal to Asset Protection and Security Services in July 2009. An extremely detailed report published by the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal shows an excerpt from the RFP (request for proposal) for the El Centro contract that Akal ended up winning, where the estimate ICE suggests (scroll to p. 497) reads as such: “Offerors should propose $1 dollar per detainee workday for 39,712 [detainee workdays].” The source material contains a now-defunct ice.gov link with Akal’s name in it:
(The FOIA also shows how one of the contractors that followed Akal at the Florence SPC, the notorious Corrections Corporation of America [now rebranded as CoreCivic], is on record doing this at Florence. It’s unclear if Akal also did the same at this location.)
Let all this sink in for a minute: while Akal disputed the amount its own employees should be paid under California wage law, leading to a class action lawsuit, it also saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars by implementing a national policy of using jailed migrants as a source of cheap labor. Not convicted criminals, mind you; these were simply ICE detainees serving food and scrubbing floors for $1 dollar a day. For years. Does that appear ethical? Did it violate the Thirteenth Amendment? (This is before Trump made everything an asylum-seeking immigrant does a possible criminal offense.) Does Akal pride itself by being in the same league as the GEO Group and CoreCivic about this? With respect to the Sikh Dharma community — forget the price points that make yoga seminars and international tea distribution so successful, as those are peaceful enterprises — should SDI adherents be informed that this is how some of the money truly flows upstream?
This tactic will be revisited when referencing Akal’s ongoing contract with AGS at Krome, and it’s not gonna get any prettier.
(III) The Doyon / Akal JV II contract for the El Paso SPC ran from February 2009 to June 2014, and was also worth over $200 million. This contract is noteworthy because Akal Security — the company whose name means “deathless” or “undying,” and whose credo is to defend and protect, especially when it comes to the defenseless — was responsible for the oversight and security of a few dozen Sikh detainees stuck at the El Paso ICE facility for months. Conditions were so desperate that a hunger strike was staged by the Sikhs during April 2014.
What Akal leadership or Sikh Dharma International did directly on behalf of their fellow Sikhs during the latter’s lengthy incarceration remains unclear. (A review of the affiliate SDI and Sikhnet websites display a post of a youth caravan traveling from California to advocate for the El Paso detainees that April. The group of young Sikh-Americans did not list themselves as part of the Sikh Dharma community.) But it’s a fair question, as SDI announced last month via a story about ICE published in the Santa Fe Reporter that it would be embarking upon a humanitarian mission to take “books and prayer books for the Sikh detainees held at the [same] ICE El Paso Detention Center.” This was during the height of outrage at the Trump administration’s family separation policy earlier this summer.
(IV) In Florida, Akal initially worked directly with ICE at the Krome SPC, starting in 2002. By 2008, that contract was replaced by the Doyon / Akal JV I partnership, an agreement also worth just over $200 million. Doyon is the second Native American corporation to partner with Akal, and that contract lasted through mid-2014, until it was replaced with the latest Akal / “Alaska-based JV” marriage, that of the aforementioned Akima Global Services, or AGS, which is a subsidiary of the massive Akima, LLC conglomerate of nearly 40 companies, and itself a division of the even larger NANA Development Corporation. (So, minority owned? Check. Economically disadvantaged? Hardly.)
To say the Krome facility has a somewhat checkered past is like saying President Trump is slightly fond of Twitter. It’s a rough place, though by most accounts much better than it was 30 or 40 years ago. But still bad, and not just for detainees. A comprehensive review of conditions at the Krome SPC during the Doyon / Akal JV I contract, the years before when it was just Akal, and the beginning of the AGS / Akal takeover in 2014 may be reviewed in this thorough Miami New Times article.
As noted previously, Akal appears to be just fine with paying detainees $1 a day. The blog stateswithoutnations has an excellent compilation of articles detailing just how widespread the abuse is (Akal’s 2012 RFP for Krome reflecting kitchen employee pay is toward the bottom of the page, and also highlighted here). The author has also assembled a chart where she computes how much these contractors have profited by implementing “detainee wages” (a term that shouldn’t be a thing, unless the detainee has been convicted of a criminal offense). Akal made the list.
In August 2015, 22 Sikh detainees staged a hunger strike at Krome as a last-ditch effort to attract attention to their asylum-seeking cases. The ACLU got involved; it’s unclear as to whether SDI did, given their relationship with Akal and, obviously, Sikhs. To be absolutely clear, everyone seeking asylum should be given a timely credible fear interview and bond hearing. But when invoking the Baker Act was discussed as a means to force feed the detained Sikhs, it would have been under AGS / Akal supervision.
Finally, though Akal says it works only as a subcontractor under AGS at the Krome, Miami, SPC, in a National Labor Review Board finding from 2015, Akal is listed as partnering with AGS for the Batavia ICE facility near Buffalo, NY. In the mediated settlement, Akal is on record as the entity providing armed guards, while AGS personnel are unarmed. On its website, AGS proudly proclaims a 10-year contract award from DHS / ICE for the Batavia SPC, taking it into 2024, the same duration as the AGS / Akal contract at the Krome SPC. Unclear as to whether they continue to work together in upstate New York — perhaps Akal decided to skip the cold weather when it comes to detention management.
Akal Headquarters, Espanola, NM (source: Google)
Quick Recap: INS/ICE, from Reagan to Trump
In the 1980s, President Reagan famously granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, while his administration simultaneously financed and condoned so much war and death throughout Central America under the guise of fighting the spread of communism. People escaped in droves with whatever they could, and a sliver of those from El Salvador went on to form MS-13 in Los Angeles. Fast forward two presidents and you have the Clinton administration expediting the shipment of gang members en masse, effectively importing the cancer that is MS-13 to spread virulently alongside other gang and drug cartel activity throughout El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Two more presidents later and the situation became so bad in Central America that President Obama was forced to grapple with a huge influx of unaccompanied minors, as well as families, fleeing the wanton violence that is daily life in these countries. His administration vetoed the tactic of family separation when it was suggested, but they did not pass up family detention as a matter of policy. Which is exactly what has happened again, now that Trump rescinded the family separation policy on June 20.
Less deportations, far more removals (source: migrationpolicy.org)
The current administration’s policies have emboldened many opinionated-but-often-inactive Americans to become both enraged and engaged. What kind of leader encourages inflicting additional trauma upon asylum-seeking migrants by demanding that those in uniform pull children away from parents? That rhetorical question drove news cycles nonstop — everyone saw the John Moore pic of the child in the bright pink shirt (who, luckily, was not separated from her mother that night), and heard the clandestine recording passed to ProPublica of very-much separated children crying uncontrollably — which eventually forced the family separation order to be rescinded.
But the tragedy is far from over: parents have been coerced into deportation as a condition of seeing their children, then promptly deported without their children. Chartered aircraft with private security guards, all contracted under ICE, return them to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other Latin American countries. Amongst the imagery of Latino children in cages and foil blankets are stories of detained kids being forcibly injected with drugs by the government contractors charged with their oversight, or stashed in nondescript office locations without kitchens or showers until the conditions were filmed and exposed. While the repercussions for these children will continue to be harrowing, tireless efforts by the ACLU and immigrant advocacy groups like RAICES have represented the best of human nature during this disgraceful chapter of American history. For families that have been reunited, photos often convey just what, exactly, has been accomplished by this tactic.
However, the above question about Trump’s so-called leadership is not an accurate one. The idea to scare the shit out of families and leave scars that will last lifetimes did not emanate from the president’s brain (by all outward appearances, Trump’s capacity for original thinking stops at “now” and “not now”); rather, putting children in cages was no more a bold business decision than Trump Steaks or Trump University. The policy was presented to him as a lucrative opportunity which he should fully exploit, and he was 100% for it until he wasn’t. It’s a business. So why should anyone who profits from ICE’s continued inhumanity not be exposed for being complicit?
In other words, it’s possible to have nothing to do with separating families (that would be Customs and Border Patrol at the border, or ICE when someone already in the U.S is targeted for removal), yet have everything to do with the detention management and transport of separated family members.
Akal and the Role of ASOs
Until fairly recently, Akal had the largest ICE contract for airline security officers (ASOs). For years. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment: meet ICE detainees on the tarmac, escort them onto planes, supervise the detainees during the flight, and escort them off the plane. Shackles and handcuffs are sometimes used, and that includes women and teenagers. If you search “ICE deportation flight” or read any of the numerous reports on transporting immigrants that have file photos attached, chances are pretty high you’ll see Akal ASOs (they’re the ones not wearing windbreakers with the letters ICE spelled out on the back).
It’s important to grasp the breadth and scope of this task — monitoring the shipment of humans — as it is such an integral part of the deportation machine. Immigrants targeted for removal may be flown via chartered aircraft between ICE’s two dozen Enforcement and Removal Operations field offices in U.S. cities, and those that ICE doesn’t repatriate by bus at the U.S. / Mexican border are flown back to their home country, also via chartered aircraft, from the five ICE Air hubs. The majority of these people are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Hundreds of thousands of people, year after year. The current president calls it an “infestation,” which polls well with some Americans, but these are people. Human beings.
For Akal, this work began in 2005 as a subcontractor for CSI Aviation, a company also based in New Mexico and also making some serious money deporting people. How serious? Enough for CSI to lodge a formal protest with the GSA when it’s $852 million dollar bid to continue coordinating flights for ICE Air was rejected. But not to worry: according to the CSI stats on govtribe.com, they still have a ten-year, $593 million dollar contract running through March 2019, chartering aircraft for the DoJ, the DoE, and HHS, the department responsible for, among other things, transporting unaccompanied (or separated) minors around the country.
It’s not a matter of public record how much of that $852 million Akal would have received, were the two companies able to continue working together.
But both firms worked in concert on ICE’s behalf for many years, flying all over the country, and then departing from the ICE Air hubs of Mesa, AZ; San Antonio, TX; Brownsville, TX; Alexandria, LA; and Miami, FL, predominately to Mexico City and Central America.
Not fake news (source: CNN)
It’s also important to note that the contract CSI Aviation had chartering planes for ICE Air ran through June 30, 2018. So any heartbreaking news item you see about Honduran fathers being deported without their young children before that date, or the hundreds of stories like it, you can thank CSI owner Allen Weh for his decades-old tough stance on immigration while having a decades-old thirst for profiting off of it. And with Akal by his side.
As of this writing, Akima Global Services (AGS), the corporation Akal works for at ICE’s Krome facility doing detention management, is hiring aviation security officers, as AGS has successfully landed the lucrative ICE Air contract that Akal had for so long. Whether Akal gets back in the ASO business under AGS remains to be seen.
The stats at ice.gov state Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted 226,119 removals for FY2017, a slight decrease from the previous year, though the percentage of those removals that were the result of arrests made by ICE increased, due to enforcement of Executive Order 13,768: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, an order Trump signed five days into his presidency.
ICE maintains that these numbers demonstrate the “profound, positive impact” of carrying out the EO, and if your business is the detention, management, and transport of immigrants, then yes, the impact of the Trump administration’s policies on your bottom line has indeed been positive, and profound.
That same day, the Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements order was also signed. Its centerpiece may have been the declaration that border walls shall now be big and beautiful, but the real money was in expanding the business of detention:
Sec. 5. Detention Facilities. (a) The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.
It’s clear where this administration stands with respect to human rights. Should Akal Security keep standing next to it?
The research in this report intentionally focuses on Akal’s work with ICE, and the odd juxtaposition of that business relationship when contrasted against the company’s full integration within the Sikh Dharma community. All the work Akal does everyday guarding courthouses, etc., is not examined here. (Either they’re doing something right, or they’re doing just enough: a compendium of what they’ve been accused of, legally and otherwise, may be found at the standforsecurity.org website. It’s not complimentary.)
Looking in from the outside, the arrangement is both unique and fascinating regarding Akal, Sikh Dharma International, the myriad other companies, and the SSSCorp overseeing it all. No doubt well-heeled lawyers and accountants have structured everything properly so that the separation of church and state is not somehow blurred financially, that of taxpayer dollars flowing via nation-state contracts into a tax-exempt church. Akal makes clear this isn’t the case. But the ethics of it all are worth considering: what if Scientology owned Blackwater in the early 2000s? Or if the Mormons absorbed the GEO Group into their successful portfolio of companies? Would we all be cool with that?
Late last month, Microsoft was presented with a petition of over 300k signatures requesting that the tech giant stop doing business with ICE. They continue to do so. Conversely, when it became apparent that separated children were being flown on commercial airlines, a few of those airlines stepped up and said “not with us.” What side of history will Akal Security be on?
There is a unique, multi-layered irony to all of this: over 50 years ago, an immigrant from India came to this country with a dream. Today is his birthday. And like other entrepreneurial thinkers before him — the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith, for example — that dream meant creating an American religion, and religions need money. This newly-minted Indian leader then took his American acolytes and settled into a small desert town, one where Spaniards had celebrated their first North American colonization over the local Anasazi four centuries earlier. And now that church is run by some of the same adherents who also direct a billion-dollar enterprise that includes incarcerating, shackling, and shipping brown people back to other former Spanish colonies.
An Akal / Sikh Dharma International representative was contacted via email with questions about Akal’s involvement with ICE. This article will be updated with their response, should they choose to provide one.