For years, thousands of detainees awaiting their trials in immigration court were paid $1 a day to mop, scrub toilets, do laundry, and myriad other jobs at the Washington state facility where they were being held. During that time, GEO Group, the company contracted with the government to run the facility, Northwest ICE Processing Center, was posting millions of dollars in profits.
On Nov. 2, that balance of power shifted. In an extraordinary decision, a federal jury in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered GEO Group to provide $17.3 million in backpay to more than 10,000 former and current detainees, some of whom had performed the virtually-unpaid labor as far back as 2005.
In addition to the jury award, federal Judge Robert Bryan issued an injunction halting GEO Group’s labor practice and requiring the company, going forward, to pay the state’s minimum wage—$13.69—to all detainees participating in the company’s Voluntary Worker Program. In response to a related lawsuit brought by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Judge Bryan also ordered GEO Group to pay the state $5.9 million on the grounds that the company had enjoyed “unjust enrichment” through unfair labor practices.
Those decisions, while limited to Washington state, could have powerful national implications, legal experts say. Many expect the federal court ruling to catalyze a wave of similar challenges in states with labor laws that mirror Washington’s. “I just don’t think a case of this magnitude … is going to go unnoticed across the country, that’s just not going to happen,” says Attorney General Ferguson, who says he plans to share the details and results of this case with other state attorneys general.
The legal reasoning employed by both the jury and Judge Bryan was straight-forward and far-reaching: immigrant detainees are not criminals. In the U.S., people who have been convicted of a crime are exempted from state labor laws while incarcerated. Immigrants, who are detained while they await civil proceedings to determine if they can remain in the U.S., fit a different category — and are therefore entitled to minimum wage for their labor.
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A nationwide ripple effect
It’s already getting attention. In Colorado, lawyers representing up to 40,000 immigrants in a similar class action lawsuit against GEO Group have submitted paperwork to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado detailing how Judge Bryan ruled in the Washington case. The Colorado plaintiffs echo Washington Attorney General Ferguson’s argument almost exactly—that GEO Group unjustly enriched itself by paying detainees $1 a day for their labor. One plaintiff in that case, Alejandro Menocal, was paid $1 a day in 2014 for cleaning when he was detained at the Aurora Detention Facility, which was also run by GEO Group.
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Michael Hancock, an attorney who has represented immigrants at privately-run detention centers in the past, says the Washington state decision offers a crucial paradigm shift. For years, he says, federal courts have “conflated those criminal incarcerated prisoners with civil detainees under the immigration law.” While he and other attorneys representing immigrant detainees argued that was “an inappropriate analogy,” they haven’t, so far, found traction.
Earlier this year, Hancock represented Desmond Ndambi, who was paid $1 a day in 2017 to manage a library at New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, which was run by CoreCivic, a private company that contracted with the government to run the facility. At the end of 2019, a New Mexico District Judge dismissed the Cibola case. In March, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court judge’s dismissal.
Washington Judge Bryan called out the case by name in his opinion. “I hope that other judges who review these proceedings will not be swayed by the idea, as quoted in the Ndambi vs CoreCivic case…that ‘fair payment for prisoners is too outlandish to consider,'” he wrote.
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No good options
Immigrants who participated in the work programs at multiple CoreCivic and GEO Group locations describe long hours and abusive behavior by officers running the center, according to court documents. Hancock, who was part of a team of lawyers who conducted interviews with former detainees during its case against CoreCivic, says that many people accepted the dismal $1 per day wage because they wanted access to basic resources, like additional food or phone calls.
“It allows you to buy ramen noodles at the canteen to supplement what is otherwise a pretty dreary diet,” Hancock says. “It can allow you to make phone calls…Even though it’s a pittance, it’s something that allows you to sort of supplement what you’re getting from the detention facility, which isn’t much and can really improve your quality of life.”
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