U.S. family detention facilities — which are often run by private companies — are coming under fire for putting undocumented immigrants to work for little or no pay.
The L.A. Times reported on Monday that migrants cross the border into the U.S. then find themselves rounded up into the detention facilities and put to work cleaning, landscaping, cooking and performing other functions that would normally be handled by hourly workers.
The article detailed the case of Honduran migrant Delmi Cruz who was held along with her 11-year-old son at a family detention center in rural Texas. Cruz said she got to work right away when she arrived at the facility.
“I worked immediately,” Cruz told the Times. “In order to have something to eat, to buy treats for my son.”
She made $3 per day cleaning bathrooms, hallways and other parts of the detention center. At the commissary, she could buy her son a bag of potato chips for $4 or a bottle of water for $2. The prison facility is run by Geo Group, which the Times says is the country’s second largest private prison company.
Migrants and their activists are rebelling against the practice and inmates in Colorado and Massachusetts have filed suit saying they have not been paid at all for working.
“We have a name for locking people up and forcing them to do real work without wages. It’s called slavery,” said Carl Takei of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
Congress passed a law in 1950 allowing U.S. prison inmates to work for $1 per day. The law was reviewed in 1979 and 1990 and upheld.
The problem, Takei said, is that inmates and immigration detainees are not the same thing. Being held my Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is “not supposed to be punishment.”
There are three family facilities for holding immigrants and 80 other facilities around the country. ICE receives funding to house 34,000 immigrants daily.
Jacqueline Stephens of Northwest University’s Deportation Research Clinic said that tens of thousands of the immigrants being held in the U.S. are being forced to work for substandard wages on annual contracts with ICE.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said, “The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities.”
They’re not allowed to work more than 40 hours per week or eight hours a day, she said, and the jobs must be directly related to the upkeep and operation of the detention center.
Denise Gilman, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, scoffed at the notion that the work program is there to serve the detainees. The practice, she said, is “not a service to the women. It’s part of their profit-making model.”
Items available for detainees to purchase are sold at hugely inflated costs, up to four times what they would cost at nearby Walmarts, said Nancy Hiemstra of Stony Brook University.
Delmi Cruz and other plaintiffs have sued Geo Group over the labor practices, saying that when they went on a hunger strike for higher pay, the detention facility fired them from their in-house jobs.
Now living in Los Angeles with her son, Cruz said, “As soon as we had the first hunger strike, they took away my work. They told me it was because I was the leader.”