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ICE Detainees Making $1 a Day Sue Over Alleged Wage Theft

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A wide shot of two men wearing blue standing in front of a green door at a detention facility.
Guards prepare to escort an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto detention facility on November 15, 2013, in Adelanto. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group.  (John Moore/Getty Images)

A multibillion-dollar private prison company has allegedly maximized profits by coercing immigrant detainees locked up at two of its facilities in California to work for $1 a day, according to a class-action lawsuit filed July 13 in federal court in Fresno.

The legal challenge accuses The GEO Group, a long-time contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with “systematic and unlawful wage theft, unjust enrichment and forced labor” at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield and the nearby Golden State Annex in McFarland.

The plaintiffs — nine ICE detainees who brought the lawsuit on behalf of other immigrants also jailed at the facilities — seek to recover unpaid wages, and for GEO to compensate its detained workforce with at least California’s minimum wage of $15 per hour.

GEO pays the paltry daily rate of $1 to detainees who volunteer to clean dormitories and dining halls, do laundry, assist detainees with disabilities and do other tasks to maintain the facilities, according to the lawsuit.

“We are civilians, we are being employed like this and I believe the right thing to do is give us what California has decided as its minimum wage to employees,” said Pedro Figueroa, 33, who until recently swept floors and scrubbed bathrooms at Mesa Verde for 40 hours per week. “We are fed up with all the injustices here.”

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Some detainees say they participate in the cleaning program to be able to afford phone calls with loved ones or commissary items, like dental floss and tortillas, which are not provided by the facility. The lawsuit argues that the program is not truly voluntary because GEO staffers may threaten or punish detainees with disciplinary action or loss of recreation, commissary, library and telephone access if they protest the inadequate pay, according to Gay Grunfeld, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“They are being forced to work under threat of sanctions,” said Grunfeld of the San Francisco law firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. “It’s shocking. These workers are forced to do an eight-hour shift for $1 a day. So that's a blatant violation of California minimum wage laws and other labor protections.”

The complaint comes after Figueroa and other detainees joined a months-long labor strike by immigrants held at the two GEO-run detention centers to protest wages, unfair treatment and other issues, according to immigrant advocates.

Figueroa, the father of four children who are U.S. citizens, was held in a small, windowless cell for about a week at Mesa Verde, which he said was retaliation for backing the work stoppage.

Mohamed Mousa, a detainee who announced his support for the strike on June 28, remains in solitary confinement at the facility after more than two weeks, according to his attorney, Kelsey Morales, with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office.

Additional court cases in California and other states allege GEO and other for-profit operators of immigration detention centers have engaged in forced labor and minimum wage violations. Last year, a federal judge in Washington state ordered GEO to pay $23 million for failing to compensate detained workers with minimum wage at a facility in Tacoma. The Florida-based company reportedly shut down its worker program and is seeking to reverse the ruling before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is now considering the case.

A spokesperson for GEO has repeatedly denied the existence of a labor strike at either facility. He rejected the allegations by detainees as “completely without merit,” and said that ICE guidelines for the detention centers require detainees to keep their personal living areas clean.

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“The allegations brought in this lawsuit are similar to those brought in previous cases involving the federal government’s Voluntary Work Program, which GEO is contractually required to implement and administer on behalf of ICE,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company will vigorously defend itself against the accusations in court.

ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Christina Cano, a spokesperson with the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees investigations of potential wage theft, said detained immigrant workers in California are considered “employees” and are entitled to pursue civil remedy for unpaid wages, based on a ruling by a federal judge in 2018.

GEO, a multinational company that operates four out of seven immigration detention centers in California, made more than $3 billion per year in revenues in 2018, 2019 and 2020, according to the lawsuit. Contracts with ICE accounted for about 28% of its revenues in 2019 and 2020.

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