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Immigrant Detainees Continue Strike Over 'Slavery' Wages of $1 a Day, Report Retaliation

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a hand reaches out of a solitary confinement cell to hold a black telephone
An immigrant detainee makes a call from his 'segregation cell' at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, which is owned and operated by The GEO Group. Detainees have been striking for several months at two other for-profit detention centers owned by the company, and some say they've been retaliated against with solitary confinement. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigrant advocates say more than 90 detainees are continuing to strike at the for-profit Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex detention centers near Bakersfield. The work stoppage has reached the six-month mark at one facility. On this week’s California Report Magazine, host Sasha Khokha checks in with KQED labor correspondent Farida Jhabvala Romero, who has been speaking to striking detainees from inside the facilities, even when some have been held in solitary confinement.

Detainees at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex detention centers are demanding California’s minimum wage for jobs like folding laundry, scrubbing toilets and working as barbers inside the detention facilities. Currently, they make only $1 a day, even when working a full-time shift.

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“I stand up against unfair treatment. It's like that slavery rate of $1 a day,” said Mohammed Mousa, 41, an immigrant from Egypt who said detention center staff held him in solitary confinement for more than 40 days for supporting the strike.

In an official civil liberties complaint and a lawsuit, some strikers alleged The GEO Group, the private company operating the detention centers, retaliated against them, including subjecting them to solitary confinement.

“This is what they’re doing to retaliate against people who speak up. This is what they’re doing to intimidate us,” Pedro Figueroa, 34, told KQED by phone from solitary confinement. Records show guards moved him to segregation shortly after he and other people in his dormitory joined the work stoppage.

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Figueroa said he spent 40 hours a week scrubbing floors and cleaning bathrooms inside the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield. “I chose not to work and voice my opinion respectfully, and that’s within my right,” he said.

The legal challenge by Figueroa and eight other detainees charges the multinational prison company The GEO Group with “systematic and unlawful wage theft, unjust enrichment and forced labor” at Mesa Verde and the nearby Golden State Annex in McFarland.

U.S. District Judge Ana de Alba is set to hear the case in federal court in Fresno next month. Additional lawsuits in Washington and other states also claim GEO, which reported revenues of $2.26 billion last year, should pay detained workers minimum wage or more.

A GEO spokesperson declined an interview with KQED, but strongly rejected allegations of retaliation. He said the company is meeting all federal detention standards while committing to ensuring a humane and safe environment at their facilities.

The spokesperson has repeatedly denied that a labor strike is taking place at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, as the work program is deemed voluntary and established under federal detention guidelines.

“We firmly deny any allegations of retaliation, direct or indirect, against persons housed at the centers for any reason whatsoever,” he said in a statement. “Under no circumstances are any detainees forced to participate in the Voluntary Work Program.”

The Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman, to whom detainees submitted a complaint, confirmed that a staff member is regularly visiting Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, but declined to comment on any investigation.

In September, more than a dozen members of Congress from California requested top federal immigration officials investigate reports of “disturbing conditions and abusive and retaliatory behavior towards detainees.”

South Bay Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, told KQED that if the complaints of retaliation are found valid, Immigration and Customs Enforcement should terminate its contracts with GEO for these facilities.

As of this week, the Departments of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have not responded to the lawmakers' request, according to Lofgren’s office.

DHS declined requests for comment. An ICE spokesperson said the agency will respond to congressional correspondence “through official channels and by appropriate officials at the agency.”

ICE detention guidelines establish that detainees volunteering to work must be paid “at least” $1 per day. The low wage rate has operated with the blessing of Congress, which has the authority to increase pay but has not done so for decades.

Meanwhile, Figueroa and other detainees at Mesa Verde said some conditions have worsened since the strike began and guards are now more frequently frisking them with invasive pat-downs whenever they leave their dormitory. GEO and ICE declined to comment directly on those allegations.

“It’s a constant invasion of privacy,” said Figueroa. “And we are not prisoners, we shouldn’t be treated as prisoners.”

That argument is key to why detainees are asking for minimum wage. While people incarcerated in federal or state prisons often earn very low wages for jobs inside those facilities, immigration detention is classified as a civil — not criminal — matter and is not intended to be punitive.

ICE officials say they determine on a case-by-case basis whether to jail immigrants while they fight deportation proceedings in court.

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