Immigrant Detention Facilities Are Using Their Own Detainees As Cheap Labor

An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees. CREDIT: AP Photo / Jae C. Hong
An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees. CREDIT: AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

According to a report in the New York Times, tens of thousands of immigrants being held in detention centers across the country are serving as cheap labor for those same centers — often for one dollar a day.

At least 60,000 immigrants worked in the detention centers last year — more than worked for any other single employer in the country — and the program extends across 55 of the United States’ roughly 250 detention facilities. The pay rate works out to 13 cents an hour, far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and is made possible by a 1950 law that set compensation rules for detention facilities. The law was once challenged in a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but in 1990 an appellate court ruled that “alien detainees are not government ‘employees.”

Inmates convicted of crimes often participate in prison work programs and thus forego their rights to wage protections, but the immigrants in these cases are actually civil detainees. According to the program, immigrants cannot work more than 40 hours a week or 8 hours per day. They’re often not paid in cash but in credits towards food, toiletries, phone calls, and other items, and the credits can be exchanged for cash when they leave the facilities. Detainees told the Times that the facility commissaries at which the credits can be used often sell these items at inflated prices, meaning money is made off the immigrants twice: once when they are paid low wages, again when they are charged higher prices.

Officials with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that local governments operate 21 of the programs, and private companies run the rest, saving the government and the companies $40 million or more a year. Some immigrants being held at county facilities work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars.

Many immigrants held in the centers are accused of being in America illegally, but some of the detainees are asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be processed, while others are permanent residents or even citizens whose documentation is under question. Furthermore, many of them are held in the detention centers while they await hearings in an immigration court to determine their legal status. The typical stay is about a month, but some stay for much longer. And at this point half of those will ultimately win their cases and be released.

Immigrants in immigration courts do not have a right to a lawyer, and the growth in won cases is likely because more of them are finally getting access to representation.

Officials at private prison companies did not comment to the Times, except to insist the programs were legal, voluntary, and saved taxpayers money. Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for ICE, reiterated those points to the Times, while adding there are usually more volunteers than jobs and that the payments are stipends, not wages.

“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” she said.

But many immigrant advocates are raising doubts: they point to an April lawsuit that charged immigration authorities in Tacoma, Washington with putting detainees in solitary confinement following a work stoppage and hunger strike, as well as a Houston case where guards pressured immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work. And a 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia found that some immigrants were being threatened with solitary confinement if they refused to work.

Deportations have boomed under the Obama Administration, hitting a cumulative total of two million in April — and the private prison industry in general was revitalized by a new influx of contracts following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Pedro Guzmán, a 34 year-old Guatemalan native, was working in the restaurant industry until he was detained for 19 months. He told the Times he was required to work even when running a fever, and that guards threatened him with solitary if he was late for his 2am shift. His family built up $75,000 in debt from legal fees before he was finally released in 2011, after the courts determined his visa was mistakenly revoked by a clerical error.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” he said. “And I was in the country legally.”