Immigrants are paid $1 a day to work in Tacoma jail. That may be illegal | KUOW News and Information

Immigrants are paid $1 a day to work in Tacoma jail. That may be illegal

Apr 13, 2017

A class action lawsuit says the company running an immigration detention center in Colorado is violating federal anti-slavery laws. It’s the same company that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, scene of an expanding hunger strike.

The group Latino Advocacy said more than 750 people at the Tacoma facility were refusing meals as of Wednesday morning.

Detainees are calling for improved quality of food, improved medical care and higher paying jobs. Detainees are paid $1 per day for voluntary work. The detention center is run by a private company, GEO Group, which operates under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Meanwhile, detainees at an Aurora, Colorado, detention center run by GEO Group have filed a class-action lawsuit. It claims the detention center violates federal anti-slavery laws.

Nina Disalvo is an attorney for the detainees in Colorado. She said it's illegal to pay them $1 a day.

"It's not the market wage that GEO would have to pay if it were absorbing the real cost of running an immigrant detention center," Disalvo said. "If GEO actually had to hire janitorial staff to clean its facility, it would have to pay that staff a market wage. And it's not paying the detainees a market wage for this work."

Disalvo said some of her clients were forced to do janitorial work and clean large areas within the facility without pay.

"If they did not do so, they were threatened with or placed in solitary confinement," Disalvo said. "Our clients allege that forcing people to work under threat of solitary confinement constitutes forced labor under the federal forced labor laws."

GEO Group has denied the lawsuit's allegations. A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs enforcement says the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Virginia Kice, ICE spokeswoman, confirmed that detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma earn $1 per day for voluntary work.

"No one is required to work or expected to work," Kice said. She said about 25 percent of detainees participate in the program, and that no detainees perform unpaid work at the facility.

The Colorado lawsuit could have implications for the Northwest Detention Center. Northwestern University political science professor Jacqueline Stevens said that if the plaintiffs prevail, GEO Group will need to pay out up to hundreds of millions of dollars in back wages and penalties.

"This could mean the end of government contracts with the private prison industry for housing people held under immigration laws, and the return to more sensible policies," Stevens said.