A federal jury found that the for-profit operator of a private detention facility for immigrants based in Tacoma must pay detained workers Washington state’s minimum wage and had violated the state’s minimum wage laws by paying workers as little as $1 per day.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. for wage violations in 2017, alleging that the private prison operator had paid workers $1 per day to “perform virtually all non-security functions” at Tacoma’s Northwest ICE Processing Center. At the time, the state’s minimum wage was $11 per hour — as of 2021, the minimum wage has risen to $13.69 per hour.
The jury ultimately awarded $17.3 million to detained workers dating back to 2014, according to the Seattle Times. The money was part of a separate class action lawsuit by a private class of plaintiffs.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Brian ordered GEO to pay another $5.9 million on Nov. 2, the amount that GEO “unjustly gained” through its labor practices. The Attorney General’s Office is seeking to put that money in a fund for people who were detained by GEO and people who lost out on job opportunities because of the company’s use of detainee labor.
“This multi-billion dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Ferguson said in a statement on Oct. 27. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate corporations that get rich violating the rights of people.”
According to the lawsuit, the Northwest ICE Processing Center has the capacity to house up to 1,575 detainees, who perform work including serving food, laundry, facility maintenance and cleaning. In exchange, detainees reported receiving $1 a day or snack food as compensation.
In the announcement of the lawsuit in 2017, the Attorney General’s Office reported that the Northwest ICE Processing Center was one of 141 correctional facilities operated by the company, with revenues topping $2 billion in 2016 alone. The facility was the fourth largest detention center at the time, holding people undergoing civil immigration proceedings and potentially facing deportation.
Conditions and concerns over wages led detainees to engage in hunger strikes in 2017 involving as many as 750 detainees.
Detainees have also participated in hunger strikes more recently in protest of conditions that they feared would facilitate the spread of COVID-19 at the facility. According to La Resistencia, a movement against detention and deportations led by undocumented people, fears about the virus led at least four people to participate in a hunger strike in December 2020, as reported by Real Change in March 2021.
The organization also called on the Biden administration to declare a moratorium on deportations in his first 100 days in office. The Biden administration did not do so.
Concerns about and resistance toward deportations were heightened during the four years of the Trump administration in part due to the rhetoric about undocumented immigrants coming from the White House. A network of local churches rekindled the Sanctuary Movement in 2017, an effort that originated in the 1980s to protect undocumented immigrants. The Immigrant and Refugee program with the Church World Service, a multi-faith organization with a social justice mission, counted roughly 400 congregations that had formally registered as “sanctuaries” prior to the 2016 election, the group said at the time.
That number more than doubled after.
While the Trump administration garnered attention for its talk against undocumented immigrants, The Washington Post reported in 2019 that the overall number of deportations was actually lower than during the Obama administration. The number of deportations caused advocates to dub Obama “Deporter in Chief.”
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist and former Real Change staff reporter. Her work can be found in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX and the Urbanist.
Read more of the Nov. 3-9, 2021 issue.