As we see the effects of Donald Trump’s hardline approach to immigration, detention centers – which house undocumented immigrants seeking asylum – will play a growing role in the lives of detainees as they await clarity on their future. Already, Asylum Division Chief John Lafferty reportedly stated at a recent town hall with Department of Homeland Security staffers that the agency has made 20,000 beds available to detain more undocumented immigrants, according to documents received exclusively by MSNBC’s All In with Chis Hayes. The administration’s even considering separating women from their children once detained.
And while this will surely raise questions about immigrants’ mental and physical health among other issues, this upsetting news serves as a reminder that these facilities – many privately owned and operated – have long been a hotbed of controversy. The most recent example is a lawsuit that US District Judge John Kane just gave class action status, which charges that the operator of a private prison compelled detainees to perform unpaid labor, according to The Washington Post.
Originally filed in 2014, the lawsuit filed accuses one of the largest private prison companies in the United States – GEO Group – of violating federal anti-slavery laws. Detainees were allegedly forced to work for as much as $1 a day and, in some cases, no money at all. The lawsuit, which puts the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, California at the center of the controversy – was filed on behalf of 33-year-old Grisel Xahuentitla and eight other immigrants. But Kane’s ruling allows as many as 60,000 current and former detainees to become part of the lawsuit. Similar class action lawsuits haven’t moved forward in the past.
“That’s obviously a big deal; it’s recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor,” Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, which reps low-wage workers, told the Post. “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 lawsuit states that every day, the facility would randomly choose six detainees and force them to clean the housing units. If the immigrants refused to do the work, they’d receive solitary confinement threats.
“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” Anthony Free, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, 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.”
And if the facility only paid $1 a day for the work, then it may have also not followed Colorado’s minimum wage, which calls for $9 an hour. The lawsuit accuses the GEO, which owns dozens of facilities across the country, of “unjustly” enriching itself through the labor of detainees. The plaintiffs accuse the company of only hiring one full-time janitor and relying on immigrant labor for everything else. GEO Group denies that it has violated any laws, claiming that it followed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Voluntary Work Program.
“We intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Pablo Paez, GEO Group spokesman, said. “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, Colorado Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
ICE only requires that detainees keep their own areas tidy. But the lawsuit claims that it not only coerced those who didn’t sign up for the program to mop floors and clean up the dining area, it also made those, like Xahuentitla, perform jobs outside the scope of their duties. Grisel also accuses GEO of only paying her for two of the four weeks she worked in the program.
“These immigrants came here to work to make a better life for themselves and their families,” said Brandt Milstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Then, when they’re caught doing so and detained, they’re told it was unlawful to work in this country. Then they’re forced to work for nothing in order to pad the profits of a private prison company.”