Report: Detained immigrants say they were forced to clean detention facility for $1 a day

Immigrant detainees say they have been forced to work for as low as one dollar per day in detention facilities—and some say they never got paid at all, as reported by Jerry Iannelli at Miami New Times. Now, newly revealed internal staff emails seriously strengthen those claims.

The story behind this lawsuit goes back a few years to Raul Novoa, a man originally from Mexico who had been living in Los Angeles on a green card before being held at Adelanto Detention Center in California. In 2017, after being held at the center from 2012 to 2015, Novoa sued GEO Group, alleging that detainees were forced to work for a mere dollar per day. What is the GEO Group, by the way? As covered previously at Daily Kos, it’s an enormous for-profit detention company. GEO makes a ton off of the government each year, to boot.

Novoa’s complaint alleged that in addition to working as janitors, detainees were forced to do laundry, work in kitchens, cut each other’s hair in facility barbershops, and, bizarrely, even do clerical work for the company. If these allegations are true, detainees were basically doing the upkeep of the facility they were being held in. Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, spoke to that idea, telling Mother Jones, “If GEO was absorbing all of the labor costs, its profit would be less.”

Novoa also alleges he was served “moldy bread” and “rotten meat,” making the dollar daily wage basically a requirement if he wanted to get his own food. Novoa isn’t alone in these accusations—five other detainees; Abdiaziz Karim, Gagandeep Marhwaha, Ramon Mancia, Jamie Campos Fuentes, and Fernando Munoz Aguilera, have come forward and offered similar statements to the court. Their allegations? Equally horrifying.

One person claims he had to clean maggots and worms out of shower drains. Another stated that he did kitchen work for about 18 cents per hour. The common factor in these new allegations is that these detainees were forced to work at these unethical wages in order to afford necessary hygiene items, like toothpaste, or food. Many say they were never paid for their labor in the end, anyway.

One detail that’s getting a particular amount of attention? As reported by Miami New Times, internal emails from staffers which include complaints that detainees were not scrubbing the facility to their liking. After receiving an email of this nature in May, for example, subordinates reportedly made detainees wax floors, mop, and sweep wings of the detention center. 

Ethics aside, why, if true, is this a problem? Immigration detainees are held on civil charges instead of criminal ones. Detainees have not been convicted of crimes. On a basic level, this is what (theoretically) separates the treatment of immigration detainees and incarcerated people. Voluntary work programs, however, are authorized by the federal government. Provided they’re actually voluntary, they’re technically legal.

Novoa, however, says he was coerced into working as a janitor at the facility. He said that if he refused to clean in the facility, his refusal to work would have landed him in solitary confinement. Another detainee claims he was threatened with being transferred to another housing unit at the facility. So even removing the pay factor from the equation, these claims paint a picture where “choice” is essentially a fever-dream.

“If given a meaningful choice, Mr. Novoa would not have worked for $1 per day,” the suit stated. When people are systemically disenfranchised of power and autonomy, choices they’re “offered” are choices only in language, not in the practical world. 

What does the company have to say about all of this? GEO passed the buck to ICE. GEO explained that it doesn’t employ the immigrants in question, and thusly doesn’t need to adhere to minimum-wage laws. If GEO doesn’t employ these people, who does? ICE.

“This is not and has never been a program implemented unilaterally by service providers like GEO, and the wage rates associated with this federal government program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress,” a GEO spokesperson explained to Capital & Main.

And while according to ICE, detainees only need to keep their immediate space clean (no clutter, beds made, and so on), this all circles back to the idea that this “work program” is voluntary. But as discussed above, a work program isn’t “voluntary” if you’re threatened with solitary confinement if you refuse to participate.

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