Earlier this month, a federal jury determined that the GEO Group, a for-profit entity based in Florida that runs the Northwest ICE Processing Center (formerly the Northwest Detention Center), violated Washington state’s minimum wage law by paying detainees well below an hourly wage for essential tasks including preparing and serving food, laundry service and janitorial services. Per a press release written by the Washington state Attorney General’s Office, Washington state is the first to sue a for-profit detention center for violating wage theft.
In the process, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan ordered the GEO Group to pay $5.9 million, the amount gained from paying workers $1 per day since 2005. This decision came after the federal jury in this case had awarded an estimated $17.3 million in back pay for detained laborers. The amount is set to compensate more than 10,000 individuals who had been detained at the center. This is a watershed court case, given how for-profit prisons have operated with absolute impunity, with the Northwest ICE Processing Center as a notorious case study.
KNKX Public Radio reported a few days later that the GEO Group opted to prohibit any work by laborers detained at the facility pending court appeal of the decision. The corporation, noting that it can “pay the Judgments twenty times over,” per the news report, asked for the decision to be placed on hold as the appeal is processed. This was based on a previous ruling from New Mexico in March where detainees lost a decision to CoreCivic, the other major operator of immigration detention centers in the United States.
The federal court panel in the New Mexico decision noted that an employer-employee relationship was not present, but rather, a detainer-detainee relationship was in place. This is an argument insinuated by the GEO Group when noting that their intent is to use “voluntary work programs” to reduce idleness. Sanitation and access to food are a secondary concern as these roles are not filled by regular staff. Likewise, commissary items and other food are inaccessible without money, in turn forcing many to work for pennies on the dollar. This is a common occurrence at many ICE facilities.
Sociologist Patrisia Macías-Rojas noted that “the punitive turn in immigration enforcement is not entirely about ‘enforcement with consequences’” that discourages undocumented migration or disincentivizes border crossers. Instead, it aggressively targets and disrupts the settlement of those already living in the country, those who dare to claim rights and those who are transforming the demographic and political landscape of the United States, many of whom are not “foreigners.”
The detention center, besides monetizing human misery, is a testament to anti-worker sentiment. It is time to shut it down entirely.
Read more of the Nov. 24-30, 2021 issue.