At Low Pay, Government Hires Immigrants Held At Detention Centers

Originally published on July 25, 2015 12:26 pm

It's illegal to employ immigrants without documents. But through voluntary work programs in detention centers, the federal government employs thousands of undocumented immigrants. "The government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, has effectively become the biggest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country," says Carl Takei, an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

The pay for an eight hour shift in a detention center is $1 a day, or roughly 13 cents an hour.

Private companies, like the Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group, operate roughly half of all of these centers in the United States.

Earlier this month, a federal district judge in Colorado ruled that a group of immigrants who were held at the GEO-run Aurora Detention Facility could proceed with a class action lawsuit alleging the work programs are exploitative.

Current and former detainees at the facility say they were routinely required to clean common areas for no pay—and that those who refused to comply were threatened with solitary confinement. In addition, the plaintiffs assert they should be paid a fair market wage for jobs they volunteered for in detention, like cooking, serving food, and waxing floors.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, says that in most facilities, immigrants basically make up the work force. "They do everything except guarding the people who work there," she says.

This is also the case in a lot of prisons. But detention centers are not prisons. They are a place to hold immigrants while they await asylum and deportation hearings.

So while convicted criminals serving time forfeit wage protections, Stevens says that shouldn't apply to detainees. "There is no legal authorization that would exempt them from the protections of federal labor laws," she says.

In a statement, a representative from the GEO Group said he could not comment on specific allegations in the class action lawsuit. But he pointed out that the volunteer work program as well as the wage rates are set by the federal government. Congress did in fact set the dollar a day rate more than 60 years ago. It hasn't been raised since.

A lot of immigrants say they felt used when they were in detention. Mario Gallejos is an asylum applicant from Mexico who spent three months at the GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington earlier this year. He was shocked by what he was paid for working in the kitchen. He says even the poorest Mexicans earn more than a dollar a day.

Gallejos didn't give up the job, though. He needed the money, to mail letters and make phone calls to his wife. The vast majority of detainees are like Gallejos, according to Nancy Hiemstra of Stony Brook University. They labor because they are desperate. Most don't have someone on the outside providing money so they can buy extra food, warm clothes, or phone cards--products that make their stay in detention more bearable.

Hiemstra has found that detainees are charged two to seven times more for most products in detention centers' commissaries than they would pay at a local Walmart. "Some people will work for two weeks just to make one phone call," she says. The combination of low wages, and high commissary prices, mean that operators of detention facilities recoup virtually all of the money they pay detainees. "Everything they make, [detainees] spend in detention," Hiemstra says.

The federal government pays an average of $120 per detainee per day. Paying detainees just a dollar a day to perform work integral to the running of the facility pads operators' profit margins, though, because it minimizes labor costs.

Advocates like Takei of the ACLU believe that if detainees were paid market wages, private companies would demand more money from the federal government. "It would take the detention system from being enormously expensive to being so expensive that Congress would not be willing to sustain our current detention levels," he says.

Activists want to eliminate the low wages so the government sees the true cost of detaining immigrants. They think that could lead to fewer immigrants being detained in the first place.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is illegal in the United States to hire undocumented immigrants. But in federal detention centers, thousands of these men and women are doing jobs and getting paid far less than minimum wage. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Colorado allowed a lawsuit to challenge these work programs. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Every day, thousands of immigrants clean, cook and perform maintenance work while they're held in detention. Detainees volunteer for these jobs. The pay is a dollar a day. Carl Takei is an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

CARL TAKEI: The government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, has effectively become the biggest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country.

STARR: Private companies, like the GEO Group, operate roughly half of all detention centers in the U.S. Its Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado houses about 1,500 immigrants and is the focus of a class-action lawsuit alleging the center's work program is exploitative. Current and former detainees say some immigrants face retaliation by staff if they don't work. They also argue that those who do volunteer to work should be paid a fair market wage.

JACQUELINE STEVENS: The consequences of that put their business model in question.

STARR: Jacqueline Stevens is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. She says detainees basically make up the workforce at some detention centers.

STEVENS: They do the cooking, the cleaning, plumbing - everything except for guarding the people who are locked up there.

STARR: This is also the case in a lot of prisons, but detention centers are not prisons. They're a place to hold immigrants while they await deportation or asylum hearings. So while convicted criminals serving time forfeit wage protections, Stevens says that shouldn't be the case for detainees.

STEVENS: There's no legal authorization that would exempt them from the protections of federal labor laws.

STARR: In a statement, a representative from the GEO Group said he could not comment on specific allegations in the class-action lawsuit. But he pointed out that the volunteer work program, as well as the wage rates, are set by the federal government. Congress did, in fact, set the dollar-a-day pay rate for detainees more than 60 years ago. It hasn't been raised since. Stevens estimates that the GEO Group saves up to $72 million a year by not paying detainee workers the federal minimum wage.

STEVENS: Or about 25 percent of the company's total profits.

STARR: A lot of immigrants say they felt used in detention. Mario Gallejos is an asylum applicant from Mexico who spent three months at a center in Washington state. He was shocked by what he was paid.

MARIO GALLEJOS: (Through interpreter) We are talking about a dollar a day. Even the poorest people in Mexico earn more than that.

STARR: But Gallejos says taking a job in the kitchen was the only way he could afford to make phone calls to his wife. Nancy Hiemstra of Stony Brook University says most detainees are like Gallejos.

NANCY HIEMSTRA: They're laboring because they're desperate.

STARR: These immigrants don't have people on the outside providing money to buy extra food, clothes or phone cards - things that might make life less difficult inside a detention center. Hiemstra's found detainees pay up to seven times more for those items than they would be charged at a local Wal-Mart.

HIEMSTRA: Whatever they make, they spend in detention.

STARR: That means centers recoup almost all the money they pay detainees. In addition, the federal government pays an average of $120 per detainee per day. But the fact that centers can be run on cheap labor makes them more profitable. Carl Takei of the ACLU points out that companies would demand more money from the government if they faced higher labor costs.

TAKEI: It would take the detention system from being enormously expensive to being so expensive that Congress would not be willing to sustain our current detention levels.

STARR: Activists want to eliminate the low wages so private detention companies are no longer subsidized and the government sees the true cost of detaining immigrants. Alexandra Starr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.