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Victory for Immigrant Hunger Strikers: Lawsuit Challenges Slave Wages at Private Jail

Federal policies have allowed immigrant detainees to be paid slave wages.

A sign that reads "shut it down" is pictured at the Northwest Detention Center as people attend the Peoples Tribunal Against the Detention Center event in Tacoma, Washington, on February 26, 2017. (Photo: JASON REDMOND / AFP / Getty Images)

For three years now, incarcerated immigrants have staged hunger strikes and work stoppages to protest conditions at the Northwest Detention Center, an immigration jail in Tacoma, Washington, run by a private prison company that pays detainees as little as $1 a day to work in the jail.

“This week folks were offered chips or a soup for several nights of waxing the floors, so not even $1 [per] day,” one person incarcerated in the jail recently reported to NWDC Resistance, an immigrant-led group fighting to end the deportation and detention of immigrants.

Immigration defendants held at the jail are under constant surveillance.

Five hunger strikes have been held so far this year, with participants and whistleblowers facing solitary confinement, threats of forced feeding and other forms of retaliation from prison authorities, according to NWDC Resistance.

Their efforts paid off on Wednesday when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a lawsuit against GEO Group, a massive private prison firm that runs the Northwest Detention Center under a federal contract. Ferguson argues that the company has netted millions of dollars in “ill-gotten profits” by violating the state’s minimum wage law and paying defendants as little as $1 a day for laboring in the jail, according to a release.

Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokesperson for NWDC Resistance and Latino Advocacy in Washington, told Truthout that defendants held at the jail are under constant surveillance and are told that anything they do or say could impact their immigration case, so alerting Ferguson’s office to labor abuses and organizing hunger strikes was a big risk. Still, they chose to fight back.

“At the end of the day, this victory is the hunger strikers’ victory, and we want people to know that,” Villalpando said of the lawsuit.

Like those held in a local jail, defendants held in immigration jails have not been found guilty of a crime. Instead, they are suspected of being in the country without proper documentation, although they may be asylum seekers, permanent residents and legal citizens whose documentation is being questioned by immigration authorities.

At the Northwest Detention Center and dozens of privately run immigration jails across the country, these detainees carry out nearly all the work in the jail, from doing laundry to waxing floors, according NWDC Resistance.

In some cases, detainees at the Northwest Detention Center were paid for their labor in “snacks” such as chips and soft drinks, which are also sold in the jail’s commissary (store) for at exorbitant prices. Family members are not allowed to bring supplies to their loved ones locked up in the jail, where a bottle of shampoo costs $8, or more than a week’s worth of work.

This is not the first lawsuit against GEO Group for paying immigrant defendants slave wages to work in its jails. Earlier this year, a federal court granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of defendants incarcerated at an immigration jail in Colorado, alleging violations of minimum wage and anti-labor trafficking laws.

Alerting Ferguson’s office to labor abuses and organizing hunger strikes was a big risk.

GEO Group has defended its actions by arguing that work programs at its immigration jails are “voluntary” and meet federal standards established by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency in charge of immigration jails.

Jorge Baron, the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said that hiring “volunteers” is no excuse for violating Washington’s minimum wage law, which sets the minimum at $11 an hour and is broadly written to include as many workers as possible. Employers must pay the state minimum wage, even if employees volunteer to work for less.

“And I would say that this is an inherently coercive situation,” Baron told Truthout. “It’s not like people can say, ‘Well, I will go get a job somewhere else.'”

Indeed, ICE’s official “standards” for immigration jails set the minimum payment for labor under voluntary work programs at $1 a day. When activists confronted ICE about the policy at a recent meeting in Seattle, officials said they were only following federal law, but that law was written well over half a century ago.

In some cases, detainees at the Northwest Detention Center were paid for their labor in “snacks.”

Congress wrote a law in 1950 that set the standard wage for labor performed by defendants in immigrant jails at $1 a day, an amount that experts say was based on wages established for “enemy aliens” held in internment camps during World War II. Congress last reviewed the law in 1979 but declined to raise wages. However, that was before the jailing of immigrants and mass incarceration became big business for private companies.

Prior to GEO Group’s founding in the 1980s, there were only about 30 people detained on immigration charges on any given day in the United States, according to Christina Fialho, the co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a network of visitation programs around the country. Since then, GEO Group and other private prison companies have lobbied for laws that expanded immigration detention and mass incarceration.

“In fact, in the 1990s, various federal and state laws were passed that created an atmosphere where a new prison was built every 15 days throughout that entire decade,” Fialho said in an email.

Today, immigration jails in the US incarcerate 380,000 to 442,000 people every year, and about 70 percent are held at privately run units, according to CIVIC. Fialho said the immigration detention system doesn’t benefit anyone but the private companies running jails like the Northwest Detention Center.

In the 1990s, various federal and state laws were passed that created an atmosphere where a new prison was built every 15 days throughout that entire decade.

“Private prison corporations collect around $165 per person per day from the public. They then have immigrants work in their facilities for only $1 a day at most and cut corners where it matters, such as on medical care and food, and they then send the profits to their shareholders,” Fialho said. “Last year, GEO Group amassed $2.2 billion from this incarceration scheme.”

Villalpando said that ICE must also be held accountable for both its contractors and the policies that allow them to pay detainees so little. GEO Group and ICE often point fingers at each other when complaints are raised, but at the end of the day, it’s ICE that hires companies like GEO Group as contractors. (ICE does not comment on pending litigation.)

“ICE is permitting [GEO Group] to use these loopholes and whenever it’s convenient, they say that’s not ICE, it’s GEO Group,” Villalpando said.

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