Two current conflicts between state and federal power showcase how situations that are topically similar can reveal important yet subtle differences.

Private prison contractor GEO Group owns and operates the Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington. After the state passed HB1470 to instruct state agencies to conduct inspections of private detention facilities as they would other private businesses, staff in the facility – using their status as a contractor to a federal agency – refused to permit state health inspectors entry on multiple occasions.

Such a denial raises significant concerns about the treatment of incarcerated individuals and oversight of facility conditions, potentially jeopardizing the health and safety of those in custody. Indeed, reports of inhumane conditions prompted passage of the legislation in the first place. This situation raises fundamental questions about accountability and humane treatment in privately managed facilities (and these conditions are rampant in facilities run by GEO Group and CoreCivic across the country and internationally).

A similar conflict in Texas showcases an instance that is, in some ways, a directly inverse problem. There, Governor Abbott restricted Border Patrol access to a border area, limiting federal agents’ ability to monitor and respond to border crossings effectively. Beyond the political ramifications (some see this behavior as grandstanding for a future campaign issue), this action raises questions about the state’s ability to compromise not only public safety and security, but also deprive people from lifesaving care at the hands of federal agents.

In Washington, the debate centers on immigration detention regulation and the state’s capacity to enforce standards in these facilities. In Texas, the issue extends to the broader discussion on immigration policy and the balance of power between state and federal governments concerning national security matters. And although in both instances federal action (through a private intermediary in the Washington instance) is being hindered by state-level actors, a key difference differentiates the two: in Washington, the state actor is trying to enforce humanitarian concerns, and in Texas, the federal agency is the party pushing for those same standards.

The denial of access to entities responsible for ensuring health and safety is not merely a legal or political matter but a humanitarian one. It reflects a failure to prioritize the well-being of individuals, whether incarcerated or seeking refuge at the border. These conflicts serve as a stark reminder of the importance of upholding principles of accountability, transparency, and humanity in governance.

Of note, this is not the only example of dehumanizing people and turning them into political pawns: Florida and Texas have both been regularly shipping recent immigrants across the country to score political points. So while we consider the proper roles of state, federal, and private parties enforcing various laws and regulations, we must remember that, in the end, it is people who are affected.