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A Dollar a Day Keeps ICE Away: LA Times Exposes Imprisoned Immigrants Working for Pennies

Slavery: A Billion Dollar Business!

Slavery: A Billion Dollar Business!

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A story from Monday’s Los Angeles Times highlights a growing problem in our country’s family detention centers: detainees are being paid as little as $1 a day through a voluntary work program. Some even claim their labor isn’t voluntary. 

The article tells the story of Delmi Cruz, who along with her 11-year-old son Alexis crossed the border illegally and ended up in a family detention center in rural Texas. 

“I worked immediately,” Cruz told the Times, “In order to have something to eat, to buy treats for my son.  It was voluntary, but it wasn’t fair.”

Cruz earned $3 a day for her work cleaning restrooms and hallways.  At the commissary run by for-profit prison company Geo Group, a bag of potato chips is $4 and a bottle of water is $2, a price 2 to 7 times more than the local WalMart charges.  In family detention centers across the country unauthorized immigrants volunteer to earn between $1 and $3 a day cleaning, cooking, laundering, and performing small tasks.  However, lawsuits that have popped up in Colorado and Massachusetts argue that the work isn’t always voluntary.  

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think-tank in Washington, told the Times:

“It’s ironic — it’s illegal for them to work, but they’re working for the immigration service in a sense.  It can be a useful element of managing people in detention.  I don’t have any problem with it in principle. The question is: Is it run well?”

The government contracts allowing this labor abuse are allegedly necessary to keep costs manageable.  But activists such as Carl Takei of the ACLU National Prison Project see it as something much more sinister.

“We have a name for locking people up and forcing them to do real work without wages,” Takei said. “It’s called slavery.”

Takei provided background on how the program is deemed legal:

In 1950, Congress passed a law allowing the dollar-a-day pay rate for voluntary labor in immigrant detention. When lawmakers last reviewed the rate in 1979, Takei said, they chose not to raise it, and an appellate court upheld the rate in 1990, finding “alien detainees are not government ’employees.’ ”

While inmates may be forced to work at the nation’s prisons, Takei said, there’s a legal difference between inmates and detainees. “The key distinction is ICE detention is not supposed to be punishment,” he said.

In addition to three facilities for families, there are more than 80 other facilities where ICE houses immigrants nationwide, including some run by local law enforcement. ICE is funded to house 34,000 immigrants daily. Of those, tens of thousands are working annually based on ICE contracts, according to Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor and director of the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern University.

ICE Spokesperson Gillian Christensen defended the approach, saying, “The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities.”

Christensen said that detainees cannot work more than 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day and are limited to duties that do not directly contribute to operations at the facility.  Christensen argues that participants are more volunteers than workers.  Increasingly, though, the participants are refuting this assertion.

Attorneys for 9 immigrants in a family detention center in Colorado, also run by Geo Group, sued the company last October saying they faced solitary confinement if they did not volunteer for the program.  A judge allowed them to move forward with their case saying that “the company unjustly enriched itself and violated a federal law barring the forced labor of human trafficking victims.”

Many of the untrained workers say they have been put in harm’s way by being given jobs that require skills beyond basic maintenance. One participant died as a result, the Times writes:

Cesar Gonzalez, 36, of Pomona, who was working with a jackhammer while detained at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster in 2007. He struck a power line, was electrocuted, suffered burns and a heart attack and later died, according to Cal OSHA records.

Gonzalez’s wife sued Los Angeles County and the sheriff’s office, which contracted with ICE to run the detention center. She received a $750,000 settlement in 2012. Cal OSHA described the immigrant as an employee and faulted the detention center for what happened, fining it $18,750.

This example flies in the face of Geo Group’s position. Cal OSHA didn’t view Gonzalez as a volunteer in a program. They viewed him as an employee. 


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