Thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are suing a Colorado-based prison firm over allegations that it forced them to work for $1 a day or no pay at all — a clear violation of federal anti-slavery laws.
The lawsuit, filed against one of the nation’s largest private prison companies on behalf of nine detainees in 2014, was bumped up to class-action status earlier this week following a federal judge’s ruling, The Washington Post reported. Now, the case possibly involves more than 60,000 immigrants who had been detained.
This is the first time a case accusing a U.S. private prison company of forced labor has been allowed to go forward, according to the publication.
“That’s obviously a big deal; it’s recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit that represents low-wage workers and undocumented immigrants. “Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights.”
The complaint accuses GEO Group, which owns and operates the 1,500-bed Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colo., under a contract with ICE, of pressing immigrants awaiting possible deportation to perform sanitation duties for far less than the federal minimum wage. If they refused, detainees said they’d be threatened with solitary confinement.
Plaintiffs asserted that forcing detainees to work for little to no pay violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law enacted in 2000 to help monitor and combat forced labor and slavery. According to the statue, it’s “unlawful to provide or obtain the labor or services of a person through” physical threats or other forms of coercion.
Additionally, the lawsuit claims that GEO Group benefited financially at the expense of nearly 2,000 detainees who were forced to cook, clean and do laundry for a dollar per day. The Denver Post reported that plaintiffs are seeking more than $5 million in damages for the 60,000-plus immigrants who were labored for little to no pay over the past 10 years.
“It’s a huge step forward for all the detainees,” said Colorado attorney Brandt Milstein, one of several attorneys representing the plaintiffs in U.S. District Court in Denver. “This lawsuit is a win for immigrants because it exposes the true cost of detaining immigrants.”
GEO officials have vehemently denied the claims brought forth in the case, claiming that the company has done nothing wrong, as its work program is voluntary. GEO spokesman Pablo Paez asserted that the company hires several full-time, on-site contract monitors to make sure it’s in compliance with ICE guidelines.
“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Paez told the Denver Post via email Thursday, March 2. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government.”
Immigrant Grisel Xahuentitla, 33, recalled her four-month stay at a detention center in Aurora where she says she, among several others, spent nearly six hours a day serving meals or scrubbing commodes for $1 as part of the center’s “voluntary” work program.
“When you are in there, there’s not a lot of options for you,” Xahuentitla told the Los Angeles Times of her experience at the Aurora Detention Facility in 2014. “You’ve got to follow their rules; you got to do what they tell you.”
Shortly after her release, Xahuentitla and eight other detainees filed the complaint that would later become a massive lawsuit against GEO Group, the newspaper reported. The case, which federal Judge John Kane ruled could move forward as a class-action suit on Feb. 27 comes at a contentious time when newly elected President Donald Trump has vowed to crack down on undocumented immigration by deporting over 2 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
It should be noted that the U.S. isn’t the only place where the used of detainee labor has come into question. Earlier this year, the Italian government considered a new policy that would force thousands of African migrants to perform free labor as a condition for asylum — a move human rights activists have likened to modern-day slavery. The “socially useful” labor would include farming, prostitution and even construction, where gangs and mafia-type criminal organizations operate an oppressive contract-labor system known as caporalato, Atlanta Black Star reported.