Class action status granted in lawsuit alleging detained immigrants forced to work for $1 a day

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A Colorado federal judge has certified a class of about 62,000 people who claim they were forced to work for $1 a day while detained at a privately run immigrant detention center, the Denver Post has reported.

The immigrants sued private prison contractor the GEO Group in 2014. An earlier Denver Post article said the lawsuit alleged that the company’s “volunteer work program” recruited detainees by threatening them with solitary confinement if they did not agree to clean and cook for the facility. A Washington Post article says six detainees are chosen at random for this program each day.

The lawsuit alleges that this practice violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law forbidding forced labor. It also alleges unjust enrichment of the GEO Group, which did not have to pay minimum wage to proper employees for the services performed by the detainees. It requests more than $5 million in damages to pay detainees the difference between the very low wages they were paid and the minimum wage.

A spokesman for the GEO Group denied the allegations in an email to the Denver Post, saying the volunteer work program, its wages and standards were all set by the federal government. In court records, the company has argued that no laws were broken by the $1 a day wages.

Prisoners in Colorado may legally work for less than minimum wage, the newspaper notes. But immigration detainees are not detained because they have been convicted of crimes, and thus have not lost the right to minimum wage, said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Colorado nonprofit Towards Justice. Rather, they’re merely awaiting hearings on possible deportation.

“There is a big difference between someone convicted of murder or rape and someone being held on a civil detainer for possible deportation,” DiSalvo, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, told the Denver Post.

As the Denver Post notes, the lawsuit could have implications for the Trump administration, which has promised to increase detention of immigrants and expanded the definition of “crime” widely, likely increasing deportations. Those moves were already expected to increase federal costs; a requirement to pay workers minimum wage would increase them further.

According to the Washington Post, research by Northwestern University law professor Jacqueline Stevens helped prompt the lawsuit. Stevens began studying the issue after meeting a U.S. citizen who had been held in a detention facility run by the other major prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America. Mark Lyttle told Stevens that he’d buffed floors from midnight to 8 a.m. for $1 a day before being wrongly deported to Mexico, according to a Northwestern press release.

“Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” Stevens told the Washington Post.




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