End Forced Labor in Immigrant Detention

End Forced Labor in Immigrant Detention

Originally Published in The New York Times.

Why is Congress allowing private contractors to exploit detained immigrants?

By Victoria Law

Ms. Law is a journalist and author of a book about incarcerated women.

Jan. 29, 2019

On May Day in New York last year, labor and immigration activists rallied against financial institutions’ support of private prisons and immigrant detention centers.CreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

On May Day in New York last year, labor and immigration activists rallied against financial institutions’ support of private prisons and immigrant detention centers.CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

There are more than 48,000 people being held in immigrant detentionin more than 200 facilities in the United States. More than two-thirds of them, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, are confined by private companies, working on contracts with the federal government. Those numbers have ballooned in the last two years under the Trump administration, drawing new attention to the terrible conditions detainees are living in.

One feature of privately run centers — the Voluntary Work Program — is the subject of six separate lawsuits, which say that privately run immigrant detention centers are coercing detainees into working for a dollar a day and punishing those who don’t. The lawsuits demand, among other things, that the practice stop and that detained workers be paid minimum wage.

Congress should not wait for these lawsuits to be decided. Democrats have won the House, so even if they can’t stop the president’s anti-immigrant push, they can push to raise the obsolete and exploitative $1-a-day wage. And, just as they have rejected Mr. Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for the border wall, they should reject the request for $2.8 billion to expand detentions to 52,000 beds.

Prison labor is nearly as old as the American prison system itself, and it is protected by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude except as punishment for a crime. This exception means that prisons can require their prisoners to work, even without compensation. 

But immigrant detention is civil confinement, not criminal. People held in these facilities are not charged with any crime; they are being detained while awaiting asylum or deportation hearings. Under Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Voluntary Work Program, however, immigrant detention centers need not pay workers more than one dollar a day, a rate set by Congress in 1950 and codified in the 1978 Appropriations Act. It has never been increased or adjusted for inflation.RELATEDMore on immigrationOpinion | Ana Raquel Minian: America Didn’t Always Lock Up ImmigrantsDec. 1, 2018Opinion: What My 6-Year-Old Son and I Endured in Family DetentionJune 25, 2018Opinion | Sonia Nazario: There’s a Better, Cheaper Way to Handle ImmigrationJune 22, 2018

Detainees say that the Voluntary Work Program is not really voluntary. If they attempt to take a day off or refuse to work, staff members punish them by withholding essential items, threatening to move them to more dangerous housing units or locking them in their cells. Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a Guatemalan asylum seeker and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against CoreCivic’s Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, said that he had to either work for a few cents an hour or go without basic things like soap, which he could get only through the commissary.

According to Mr. Barrientos’s lawsuit, one night a guard awakened him for the 2 a.m. shift in the kitchen rather than his scheduled 10 a.m. shift. When he refused, the guard threatened to move him to a violence-plagued dormitory, so Mr. Barrientos acquiesced.

Martha Gonzalez, from Mexico, was detained in three different CoreCivic prisons in Texas from May 2016 to August 2017 as she awaited a T-1 visa, which is granted to victims of human trafficking victims. She worked in the kitchen and sorted clothing. When she once tried to take a day off, she told me, the prison staff then punished her by refusing to give her basic hygiene supplies such as sanitary pads and toothpaste. 

CoreCivic did not respond to Ms. Gonzalez’s allegation but said that its work programs are “completely voluntary” and that “detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program.”

A representative for GEO Group called the lawsuits’ allegations baseless, saying that “this is a strictly voluntary program” and that GEO Group provides hygiene products free of charge upon request. 

Private corporations hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, but more than 70 percent of people in immigration detention. The government pays them a fixed daily price per person, so they have an economic incentive to run their facilities as cheaply as possible, relying on detainees to cook meals, mop hallways, scrub toilets, mow lawns and even cut hair.

In 2016, CoreCivic’s revenue from Stewart (where Mr. Barrientos and other detainees worked in the kitchen) was about $38 million; in 2017, contracts with ICE comprised 25 percent of its $444 million in revenue. For GEO Group, ICE contracts comprised 19 percent of its $2.26 billion revenue in 2017. 

At the same time, the detention centers provide the barest minimum to detainees, while charging them exorbitant rates for necessities. In immigrant detention, a phone call can cost as much as $12.75 for 15 minutesFour ounces of toothpaste sells for $11.

These two corporations have become the giants of the private prison industry. Between 2016 and 2018, CoreCivic spent $2.8 million in lobbying and over $700,000 on campaign contributions while GEO Group spent $4.4 million in lobbying and $2.5 million on campaign contributions. Each company also donated $250,000 to Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

They blame the 1978 Appropriations Act for the low wages. As GEO Group puts it, “the wage rates associated with this federal government program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress.” 

That is true. If Congress instead forced these companies to pay the federal minimum wage, their profit margins would drop dramatically.RelatedMore on immigrationUsing Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap LaborMay 24, 2014

But the dollar-a-day rule has stalwart defenders in Congress. In response to a class-action lawsuit in which formerly detained immigrants said they were forced to work, 18 Republican Congressmen sent a letter on March 7, 2018, to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the head of ICE and the secretary of the Department of Labor, exhorting those agencies to help GEO Group defend itself. “Unless your agencies act to intervene in these lawsuits, immigration enforcement efforts will be thwarted, and the end result will be millions of dollars of unnecessary loss to the federal government in terms of additional expenses for immigration detention,” they said. In other words, they worried that if the private prisons were forced to pay reasonable wages, the companies would pass on those costs to the federal government.

The lawsuits are not pushing to end the Voluntary Work Program altogether. They understand that it allows people who are in detention to buy things they need and keep in touch with their families by phone, which becomes even more urgent as the number of families torn apart by detention increases. Instead, the lawsuits are pushing for an end to exploitation and a fair wage for their work.

Yes, paying detainees a minimum wage would make these facilities much more expensive to operate. But if privately run detention centers rely on a business model based on forced labor, perhaps they should not exist at all.

Victoria Law, a journalist, is the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggle of Incarcerated Women.”


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