A lawsuit filed in 2014 claimed that tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were forced to work for $1 a day, or for no money at all — a violation of federal anti-slavery laws.
The lawsuit was filed against one of the largest private prison corporations in the country, the GEO Group. It reached class-action status this month after a ruling by U.S. District Judge John Kane. The case is reportedly estimated to involve around 60,000 immigrants who have been detained.
This marks the first time in U.S. history that a class-action lawsuit alleging forced labor against a private U.S. prison company has been allowed to move forward.
“That’s obviously a big deal; it’s recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that provides legal representation to low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants.
“Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights.”
The dispute mainly revolves around the Denver Contract Detention Facility, a 1,500-bed detention center in Aurora, Colorado which is privately owned and operated by the Florida-based GEO Group under a contract with ICE. The GEO Group has many facilities across the country, which house immigrants who are awaiting their turn in court.
The class-action ruling by a federal judge means that as many as 60,000 current and former detainees at the detention facility in Aurora are now part of the lawsuit without having to effectively join as plaintiffs, said Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The claim by the original nine plaintiffs is that detainees at the ICE facility are forced to work without pay — and that those who refuse to do so are threatened with solitary confinement, a form of torture.
Specifically, the lawsuit details, six detainees are selected at random every day and are forced to clean the facility’s housing units. The lawsuit claims that the practice violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery.
“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” Free said.
“Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force.”
GEO Group is also accused of violating Colorado’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees $1 day instead of the state’s minimum wage of about $9 an hour. The company “unjustly enriched” itself through the cheap labor of detainees, the lawsuit declares.
The class-action ruling by Kane, a senior federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Colorado, came at a critical time, DiSalvo said, noting President Trump’s pledge to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Advocates say private prison companies that have managed to secure government contracts stand to benefit significantly from the president’s hard-line policy of detaining and deporting a massive number of immigrants.
“That means you need to round up and detain more people in order to determine whether they have the rights to stay in this country before you deport them,” DiSalvo said. “More people could be moving through, not just in the Aurora facility. More people could be subjected to GEO’s forced labor policy.”
The GEO Group has strongly denied the lawsuit’s allegations and argued in court records that pay of $1 a day does not violate any laws.
“We intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
Jennifer D. Elzea, acting press secretary for ICE, was unable to comment on the litigation because “ICE is not specifically a party in this suit.”
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants with illegal status in the country, and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
Under ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, detainees sign up to work and are paid $1 a day. The nationwide program, ICE says, “provides detainees opportunities to work and earn money while confined, subject to the number of work opportunities available and within the constraints of the safety, security and good order of the facility.”
Detainees work for up to eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, cleaning bathrooms, showers, toilets, windows, patient rooms and staff offices, waxing floors, and preparing and serving meals. ICE says detainees “shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping.”
This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, the lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Washington, of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed at that facility.
The federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers. But immigrant advocates question whether it is truly voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.
Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from ICE. The cheap labor, from 13 cents to a dollar an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.
Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the detainees who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge, or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.
Jacqueline Stevens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the program does not meet the criteria for what qualifies as “volunteer work” under labor laws. It was her research into the so-called “volunteer work” program that prompted the lawsuit.
“Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs.”
Prison labor, Stevens added, has two purposes: to punish prisoners after they’ve been convicted of a crime and to rehabilitate them.
Those don’t apply to immigrant detainees, she said.
“There’s no ostensible purpose to rehabilitate them,” Stevens said. “They’re just waiting for a court date in order to clarify their immigration status. Some don’t end up being deported.”
According to Free, there are alternatives to detaining immigrants while they wait for their court date, such as supervision programs and community monitoring.
“That’s much cheaper than spending double the current cost of detention,” Free said, adding that not incarcerating them would ensure they’re able to find attorneys and attend their immigration hearings.
“The for-profit prisons are a policy choice against due process in immigration courts and against access to counsel and against positive outcomes to immigrants who have valid claims.”
In 2014, GEO Group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in court records that Colorado’s minimum wage law does not apply to immigrant detainees.
“Detainees are not whom the minimum wage laws were intended to protect. The minimum wage law was enacted in Colorado to ensure wages are adequate to ‘supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the health of workers so employed,’” the attorneys argued, quoting the state statute.
The company further insisted that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is inapplicable because the law is meant to prevent the trafficking of humans for labor and/or sex. GEO Group, the attorneys wrote, “did not traffic Plaintiffs in the Aurora facility with the purpose of putting them to work.” They added that the detainees are in the custody of immigration officials.
In 2015, Judge Kane partially denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Although he concurred with GEO Group that Colorado’s minimum wage law is inapplicable, he ruled that the other claims are permitted to stand.
“GEO’s argument was, ‘Even if we are forcing people to work under threat of solitary confinement, that would be allowed,’” DiSalvo said. “And the judge said, ‘No it wouldn’t be.’”
Kane granted class-action status a few days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to, again, utilize private prisons, a fundamental shift from the Obama-era policy of significantly reducing and ultimately discontinuing their use altogether.
The original directive from the Obama administration did not apply to immigration detainees.
Read Part 1 of this report here:
Expanded from original sources:
- “Thousands of ICE Detainees Claim They Were Forced into Labor, A Violation of Anti-Slavery Laws” by Kristine Phillips. Originally published on March 5,2017 at The Washington Post.
- “Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor” by Ian Urbina. Originally published on May 24, 2014 at The New York Times.