While the White House rounds up and imprisons migrants, claiming deceptively that they “take jobs” from Americans, human-rights advocates say that ICE’s private-prison contractors are running a scheme that employs the same “aliens” as a captive workforce in federal detention centers.
How did immigrant jailers become immigrant bosses? Private-prison companies claim to be benevolently keeping detainees busy with “voluntary” service, but detainees and rights advocates see this supposed volunteering as a byproduct of coercion.
According to the Project on Government Oversight’s (POGO) overview of complaints against ICE and its contractors over the past decade, the work imposed on incarcerated immigrants actually exploits a series of loopholes to deny them their entitled wages.
In one lawsuit filed against private-prison contractor the GEO Group, several detainees at an Aurora, Colorado, detention center accused the private security firm of illegally exploiting detainees “to clean, maintain, and operate” the 1,500-bed facility. The detainees sued for wage theft, claiming GEO paid them just $1 per day, and sometimes nothing at all, when they were ordered to clean their own housing “pods.”
Detainee Alejandro Hernandez Torres testified about daily labor at Aurora from 2012 to 2015, when he first did “cleaning work” without pay, and was then promoted to a $1-a-day job cleaning and waxing the floors. Torres recalled, “The guards told us that if anyone didn’t do the work, they’d be put in segregation,” and he saw 10 detainees placed in confinement for failing to “voluntarily” scrub their pods.
A recent class-action lawsuit against a San Diego facility managed by the private contractor CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) described roughly 100 immigrants doing tasks like laundry and managing the commissary shop, for the standard dollar-per-day wage. They also allegedly worked “voluntarily” to clean their own pods without pay, under the threat of “severe mental pain and suffering,” inflicted through “solitary confinement” and “physical restraint.” Lawyers argued that this “voluntary” system violated federal and California human-trafficking laws.
In a 2012 investigation of four ICE detention facilities in Georgia, the ACLU of Georgia described ICE detainees’ being held in unsanitary, inhumane, isolating conditions, and regularly forced to work full-time for about $1 to $3 a day. Because of sparse rations, ACLU reported, “some detainees began to work in the kitchen just so they could eat more…. one detainee lost 68 pounds.” Their “volunteering,” in other words, involved literally working for food.
As shown on the deportation-research website of Northwestern University law professor Jacqueline Stevens, documents on ICE vendor contracts released over the past decade repeatedly reference programs for “voluntary work,” with management guidelines citing work duties as part of the routine maintenance protocol for facilities.
According to POGO, although prison labor routinely occurs in both government-run and privately contracted facilities, a key difference is that federal prison authorities report extensively to the public on conditions of detention. But prison contractors, as private businesses, have relatively little oversight and operate opaquely (even as they profit massively from government contracts).
The legal rationale behind coerced immigrant labor is an esoteric historical artifact. There is a 13th Amendment provision allowing pressed labor in criminal prisons. The $1 daily wage derives from an arbitrary rate set by the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war. But POGO researcher Mia Steinle argues that, since immigrant detainees are held on civil rather than criminal charges, there is no legal justification for forcing them into modern-day chain gangs:
The Thirteenth Amendment explicitly states that people who have been convicted of crimes can be forced to do labor…. But detainees shouldn’t fall under the same umbrella, and lawyers are arguing that they deserve minimum wage for their work.
An added irony of this phenomenon is that ICE facilities are often sited in communities hoping to generate local jobs (Stewart, for example, is located in one of Georgia’s poorest counties).
The ICE detainee workforce may swell in the coming months. In just the first half of the year, ICE arrests rose by some 40 percent, with a sharp rise in arrests of individuals without criminal convictions—yet relatively stagnant deportation rates suggest more are languishing in detention facilities. DACA recipients, losing the reprieve they were granted under Obama, may soon find themselves uprooted from their legal jobs and put to work cleaning up cell blocks. And compared to the Obama administration’s more limited enforcement priorities, planned mass raids this fall will target an unprecedentedly broad range of noncitizens, including ordinary families and even asylum seekers. Meanwhile, reports of detainee abuse and inhumane treatment persist, and deaths in detention have spiked, mostly in private facilities.
Meanwhile the private-prison lobby anticipates a 450-percent expansion of ICE-contracted detention capacity, focused on family detention, according to the San Diego lawsuit, described as a “get into jail and work for free card” for the prison industry.
In statements to The Nation, both GEO Group and CoreCivic denied detainees’ claims, but acknowledged administering voluntary-work schemes. However, both insisted that their programs followed federal wage regulations, and detainees were held in “humane” environments, compliant with national standards.
Immigrants aren’t waiting for the courts, though. A wave of militant hunger strikes has swept across private-detention facilities in a campaign of migrant-led civil disobedience. At Washington’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in April, an estimated 750 immigrants refused food to protest abusive conditions, denial of due process, and forced labor—one of five hunger strikes that have taken place at the facility this year alone.
The forced-labor allegations might be constitutionally debatable, but the debate reflects the detention system’s intrinsic asymmetrical power structure—a perverse business model premised on dehumanizing those “in the care” of prison companies. According to Maru Mora Villalpando of the advocacy group NWDC Resistance, the legal purgatory and soul-killing idleness of their imprisonment—detainees report being allowed just a couple of hours a day for recreation or library use—forces many detainees to reluctantly “volunteer” their labor as a kind of escape:
People have told me they have taken the jobs so they don’t go crazy, others don’t see any other way to feed themselves some decent meals, and some others say it’s better than doing nothing and just think about their families on the outside. But most agree, they know they are being exploited.
Whatever the precise legal ethics of commercially profiting from government prisoners, the “aliens” who toil as stewards of the prison-industrial complex expose the moral bankruptcy of the carceral state.