WASHINGTON — On Jan. 2, 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote Congress, imploring it to investigate suspected labor abuse at immigrant detention centers. The independent, bipartisan federal agency cited detainee complaints of being pressured to clean and maintain facilities for $1 a day — a pay rate that allows private prisons to hold down their costs and boost their profits.
“The commission is concerned with the added pressure to coerce detainees to perform necessary labor in order to maximize profits,” it warned, asking Congress to hold a hearing on the allegations and require detention centers to start paying detainees “a fair wage.”
Four years later, Congress has yet to hold the hearing. And the $1-a-day pay persists, which has enabled some prison companies to save tens of millions a year over what they would otherwise have to pay outside workers.
“We didn’t get here by chance,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2019. “Washington works hand-in-hand with private prison companies, who spend millions on lobbyists, campaign contributions and revolving-door hires — all to turn our criminal and immigration policies into ones that prioritize making them rich instead of keeping us safe.” Warren has called for greater scrutiny of the $1-a-day program and the elimination of private prisons.
Private prison companies deny any wrongdoing and say they follow all the rules in administering a volunteer federal work program. Their argument is based on an act of Congress from 1950 that allows the U.S. government to pay noncitizens, held on immigration violations, for work performed.
Modeled after a requirement from the Geneva Conventions that prisoners of war be paid for their labor, the Voluntary Work Program states: “Detainees may have opportunities to work and earn money. … The negative impact of confinement shall be reduced through decreased idleness, improved morale and fewer disciplinary incidents.” But unlike the Geneva Conventions, the Voluntary Work Program does not require those held “be paid a fair working rate of pay.” Congress last authorized detainee pay at no less than $1 a day in 1978.
In March, during House-Senate negotiations, a Democratic proposal to increase detainee pay died when it failed to have enough support to be included in a massive fiscal 2022 spending bill. Just months earlier, a federal jury found the GEO Group, a private prison company, in violation of the state of Washington’s minimum wage law. GEO appealed. It contends detainees are volunteers, not employees entitled to minimum wage protection.
At trial, the state of Washington put on evidence that detainees “volunteer” to work under pressure, as they have no other means to earn money. Other lawsuits accuse prison companies of threatening detainees with solitary confinement.
Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a plaintiff in a 2018 suit against another private prison company, CoreCivic (see sidebar below), alleged that personnel at an immigrant detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia, gave him an “impossible choice: either work for a few cents an hour, or live without basics things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food” and be unable to afford to call his family back home in Guatemala. Barrientos, who eventually succeeded in his request for asylum, said he was made to work eight to nine-hour shifts in the kitchen, seven days a week. He alleged that guards twice threatened him with solitary confinement because they thought he and others were planning a work stoppage.
The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865 after the Civil War, banned slavery and involuntary servitude — except as a punishment for conviction of a crime. Immigrant detainees — who include asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and documented immigrants whose status is under review — are not held on criminal charges. Instead, they are in civil detention where they wait weeks, months or even years for a federal court to decide if they can stay in the United States or will be deported. Many lawmakers don’t seem to see or recognize the distinction between criminal conviction and civil detention, and believe the $1 a day pay is adequate.
“They came here illegally and that’s a crime,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a top Republican, tells In These Times. “I can’t imagine paying people who came to this country illegally the minimum wage. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m opposed to paying them any more than $1 a day,” says Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.). “They are incarcerated. They are a lot of cost. Their work is minimal.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, disagrees. She unsuccessfully pushed for a detainee pay hike. “These people are washing floors, cleaning toilets, for $1 a day,” she says. “That’s ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone [who opposes a pay hike] work for $1 a day.”
CoreCivic spokesperson Davio, in an email to In These Times, rejected the notion that prison companies save money with detainee labor. He wrote: “The provision of a Voluntary Work Program, which is mandated by ICE, does not and has never been intended to supplant contractually required staffing and services. As such, there are no cost savings derived from the program.”
In These Times wrote back Davio, citing Zoley’s letter. Davio replied, “We stand by our previous statement.”
Heidi Altman, policy director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, which supports ending immigration detention, says, “Members of Congress who say they stand with immigrant communities should be yelling and screaming … to ensure that in the next [federal] spending bill, not one taxpayer dollar goes toward enriching private prison companies. But instead, we’re hearing a lot of silence.”
Without the power to vote, undocumented immigrants haven’t been a priority in the reelection-obsessed Congress or a country with a history of forced labor, and where “illegal immigration” is a leading public concern, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Not to mention, in 2019 and 2020 GEO and CoreCivic spent about $3 million and $3.4 million, respectively, on lobbying, and another $212,700 and $159,500 on campaign contributions via their PACs — 88% to Republicans — according to Open Secrets, a non-partisan tracker of the money in politics.
“What’s going on is obvious,” says Paul Light, a political science professor at New York University. “Those [companies] benefiting from the alleged forced labor make campaign contributions. Those working in the substandard conditions don’t have any political clout.
Just months after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights unsuccessfully beseeched Congress to investigate suspected labor abuse at immigrant detention facilities, In These Times investigated instead. Not because of the commission’s plea, but because of the first five (of an eventual nine) class-action lawsuits against the nation’s two biggest private prison companies—GEO Group and CoreCivic. The suits alleged their administration of a voluntary $1-a-day work program violated several laws, including state minimum wage and federal antislavery statutes.
Victoria Law’s “Corporations Are Profiting From Immigrant Detainees’ Labor; Some Say It’s Slavery” (July 2018) profiled asylum seekers Wilhen Hill Barrientos of Guatemala (pictured here with his aunt) and Martha Gonzalez of Mexico. Each said they’d been illegally coerced into $1-a-day work at CoreCivic’s immigrant detention facilities.
In a press release announcing his 2018 lawsuit, Barrientos says, “I was faced with the impossible choice—either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food.” Tom Padgett, Gonzalez’s lawyer, explains, “If a company can get its toilets cleaned and have maintenance, lawn and landscaping, and not pay a person anything more than $1 a day, then that company is going to be wildly successful in its profit margin.”
A CoreCivic spokesperson told Law that its work programs “are completely voluntary” and “in full compliance with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) standards.” GEO gave no response.
In a surprise this March, Gonzalez and CoreCivic mutually agreed to have the suit between them dismissed. They did it without prejudice, which means Gonzalez could refile.
Barrientos’s suit—having survived multiple dismissal efforts since it was filed April 17, 2018—heads toward trial, but it’s unclear when it will get there.
Barrientos won his asylum claims and is now living legally in the United States.
A DOLLAR A DAY IS $15 AN HOUR SAVED
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains more than 100,000 people annually. That translates to 20,000 detainees held on any given day in the roughly 200 immigrant detention facilities overseen by ICE. According to data provided by the ACLU, more than 80% are held in facilities run by private prison companies, and about 60% by GEO Group and CoreCivic — billion-dollar operations based in Florida and Tennessee, respectively.
Since the 2018 letter from the Commission on Civil Rights, former and current detainees have filed three more suits against CoreCivic alleging labor abuse. That raised to nine the number brought since 2014 against GEO and CoreCivic.
“Nothing has changed,” says Andrew Free, an Atlanta-based civil rights lawyer transitioning to a career in academia after nearly a decade of helping represent tens of thousands of former and current immigrant detainees. “Forced labor is still going on throughout the [immigrant detention] system. There’s been no federal decision to stop it.”
But, Free says, thanks to the lawsuits, “The cat is out of the bag. Congress knows what’s going on. ICE knows what’s going on. Everybody who should be interested in seeking a resolution is aware that a resolution is necessary. Yet the only action is in the federal courts.”
Matthew Davio, manager of public affairs at CoreCivic, tells In These Times everything going on at his company is lawful and in line with ICE standards. “Detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they chose not to participate in the work program,” Davio tells In These Times. “We set and deliver the same high standard of care — including three meals a day, access to healthcare and other everyday living needs — regardless of whether a detainee participates in a Voluntary Work Program.”
In a statement to In These Times, ICE declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuits, saying it does not discuss pending litigation. GEO Group did not respond to requests for comment.
In a May 30, 2018, letter to ICE — first obtained in redacted form via a Freedom of Information Act request from Northwestern University political science professor Jacqueline Stevens, and whose full content In These Times verified from court testimony — GEO Group CEO George Zoley wrote that if detainee pay was increased to the prevailing local wage, it would cost his company as much as $38 million annually.
While Congress and private prison companies have declined to raise detainees’ pay floor, annual appropriations from ICE to GEO and CoreCivic have soared more than 500% — from $101 million in 2018 to $626 million in 2022 — for a five-year total of nearly $2.5 billion, a review of records by In These Times shows.
Using GEO’S $38 million estimate, along with figures on detainee populations from Syracuse University’s TRAC database and Freedom for Immigrants, an organization that opposes immigration detention, In These Times estimates that GEO and CoreCivic managed to use detainee labor — rather than hire outside help — to together save $265 million since 2018, at an average of more than $66 million a year. Those figures are likely conservative. In a 2015 Georgetown Immigration Law Journal paper, Professor Stevens calculated that in 2012, the two companies’ labor-cost savings totaled between $63 million and $149 million.
That’s money lost to local communities — money that would have been used to hire and pay janitors, cooks, dishwashers, barbers, beauticians, painters, plumbers, librarians, clerks and other non-security posts. Those jobs would generally be under mandate to pay the federal contractor minimum wage, which in 2018 was $10.35 an hour, plus $4.48 in benefits. It is now $15 an hour (raised in January by a Biden executive order), plus another $4.60 an hour in benefits.
DEMOCRATS RETREAT, GOP ADVANCES
Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 with a campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.” A centerpiece of his vow was a crackdown on immigrants, making it tougher for them to enter and stay in the United States. Under his reign, the average daily population in immigrant detention facilities went up 50%, to about 50,000, before plunging below 20,000 due to Covid-19 policies.
In 2020, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden decried what he called Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and private profiteering on incarceration. Biden vowed to end federal use of private prisons in immigrant detention facilities as well as the use of solitary confinement, denouncing the practice as cruel and unusual punishment.
But President Joe Biden faced an uptick in migrants seeking to cross the border, and he had the government enter new detention contracts with private prison companies. By early May of this year, the immigrant detention population stood at about 22,000, up from 14,000 when Biden took office. Biden also did not follow through on his vow to end solitary confinement.
“We’re disappointed,” says Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at Detention Watch Network, a human rights group that favors abolishing immigration detention. “We expected the numbers to go down.”
“We know, we have documented — the [Homeland Security] Office of Inspector General has documented — abuse and neglect in ICE detention, medical neglect and neglect with the $1-a-day program and solitary confinement,” Ghandehari says. “People are suffering.”
Andrea Carcamo is the policy director at Freedom for Immigrants, an advocacy group devoted to eliminating immigration detention. “Private prison companies operate under the incentive to maximize their profit, and as such, it’s not surprising they cut corners at the expense of dehumanizing people in detention,” Carcamo wrote in a statement to In These Times. “Immigration detention is beyond the reach of reform, which is why we must end the cruel practice of detaining immigrants in the first place.”
Many members of Congress, primarily Republicans, have stood up for private prison companies, saying they provide a vital service. In February 2018, a GEO Group executive wrote ICE, asking for help to cover its multimillion-dollar legal bills, noting the suits stem largely from the company’s administration of the department’s Voluntary Work Program. “GEO cannot bear the costs of this defense on its own,” the executive wrote in the letter, which was also obtained by Professor Stevens under the Freedom of Information Act.
On March 7, 2018, 18 House Republicans sought U.S. government support for GEO and CoreCivic. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan, the lawmakers warned, “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.”
Ultimately, the federal agencies did not intervene to cover GEO or CoreCivic’s legal bills.
CEO IN THE HOT SEAT
Congress never indulged the requests by the Commission on Civil Rights to hold an investigative hearing, according to a senior commission staffer not authorized to speak publicly for the agency and an online review of congressional records. But individual lawmakers and committees have voiced concerns and proposed relief. Results have been scant.
Last March, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants bill was reintroduced in Congress by three Democrats — Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.). If passed, the law would, among other things, phase out privately run immigrant detention facilities and promote community-based alternatives to detention. As in the past three Congresses, however, the measure doesn’t appear to have the needed bipartisan support to become law.
In September 2018, as part of the annual Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee directed DHS’s Office of Inspector General “to review ICE policies and oversight of contract detention facilities related to detainee work programs, with a particular focus on how ICE can ensure that such work is strictly voluntary.”
According to a congressional aide (who is not authorized to speak with the press and asked for anonymity), the committee followed up with the Office of the Inspector General two years later and was told it “had not noticed” the directive. The office’s response appeared to suggest, however, that it didn’t believe a review was necessary — given the question of the “voluntary/involuntary nature” of the Voluntary Work Program was already monitored by routine “detention inspections.” The aide added that the committee did not follow up because it was distracted with other concerns.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard said afterward, “The [DHS Office of Inspector General] found there was no real sign of detainees being coerced,” so she took a look herself.
“From my perspective,” she then said, “in visiting and talking with [detainees] — that [$1 job] was the only way they could make any money” — money needed to place phone calls to family and lawyers, for example, and to buy extra food and water to supplement what critics have denounced as meager meals.
At a hearing to examine the response by immigrant detention facilities to the pandemic on July 13, 2020, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) veered off topic. He asked GEO CEO Zoley, “Has GEO ever used the threat of solitary confinement or segregation or other sanction to force individuals to clean and sanitize common areas?”
Under the Voluntary Work Program, detainees must clean and maintain their private living areas, but other work assignments are voluntary.
Zoley replied, “Detainees are required by ICE to keep their own personal areas clean.”
“I’m not asking about the personal areas, Dr. Zoley,” Neguse said. “I’m asking about common areas.”
Rephrasing the question, Neguse said, “Has GEO ever coerced immigration detainees into volunteering to perform work by threatening or imposing disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation or solitary confinement or any another kind of sanction?”
“Absolutely not,” Zoley responded.
Three months later, Neguse and five fellow Democrats challenged Zoley’s statement, citing what they called evidence to the contrary — including sworn statements from the Colorado lawsuit against GEO Group.
Former detainee Demetrio Valerga told of being selected by guards as a member of a rotating, daily, six-person crew to clean “common and private living areas” of a 1,500-bed immigrant detention facility in Aurora, Colo. “A guard threatened me with being put in ‘the hole’ when I protested,” Valerga said.
“If true,” the lawmakers wrote Zoley, “these allegations contradict your previous testimony … as well as appear to violate ICE’s own policies and forced labor laws.”
GEO denied any wrongdoing by Zoley or the company, insisting they conform with all the rules.
WAITING FOR JUDGMENT DAY
In 2017, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson did what the 535-member Congress has still declined to do: He took on the multibillion-dollar private prison industry and stood up for immigrant detainees. Ferguson sued GEO, accusing it of violating his state’s minimum wage of $13.69 by paying detainees $1 a day to clean and maintain its 1,575-bed facility in Tacoma.
In October 2021, after repeated attempts by GEO to have the suit dismissed and after a mistrial when the jury deadlocked, Ferguson won. A new jury ordered GEO to reimburse $17.3 million in back pay to more than 10,000 former and current detainees, going back to 2014, and turn over an additional $5.9 million to the state for unjust enrichment. GEO, whose stock dropped 8% after the verdict, received a stay of payment while it appeals the case.
In a statement to In These Times, Ferguson writes: “A multibillion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day. That should not happen in America. Washington law protects our workers from this kind of exploitation.”
He goes on to say, “How we detain people seeking asylum or a better life in this country says a lot about who we are as a people, and I would like to see Congress and DHS give this issue much more scrutiny.”
While many in Congress have distanced themselves from the thorny issue of immigrant detention, the lawsuits may come within 100 yards of them (on appeal) — across the street from the U.S. Capitol, in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of the nine lawsuits filed against GEO and CoreCivic, two against CoreCivic have been dismissed and seven remain, including two that were combined for trial in Washington state last year that are now under appeal by GEO.
After the jury found GEO liable for violating Washington state’s minimum wage law, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan offered what appeared to be a message to fellow judges: “Immigrant detainees, as a group, have not been found to have committed any crime, but are awaiting civil procedures that may lead ultimately to U.S. residence and citizenship or, of course, may lead to deportation. I learned at the National Judicial College in 1967 that ‘judges should not turn their backs on [those behind] locked prison gates.’ That thought is even more important as it relates to civil detention facilities.”
Meanwhile, law professor Norma Cantú, the new chair of the Commission on Civil Rights, stands by her agency’s 2018 appeal to Congress for a probe into suspected labor abuse and “a fair wage” for detainees.
Cantú, the first Latina to chair the commission, tells In These Times: “Although I was not chair at the time this letter was written, I support the findings and recommendations put forth by my predecessors.”
Reporting for this piece was supported by Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE) and a grant from the Journalism Committee of the Fund for Constitutional Government. Maggie Duffy provided fact-checking and research assistance, and Ted Bridis and David Nolte provided research.
Clarification: The print version of this article stated that immigration detention centers hold those “facing civil charges, such as unlawful U.S. entry.” The language has been updated to avoid confusion. “Illegal entry” and “illegal reentry” are criminal charges, and those facing them are held in other facilities, such as federal prisons. ICE facilities are for civil detention.