U.S. Government Employs Illegal Immigrants…in Detention Centers

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
(photo: CCA; graphic: Steve Straeley, AllGov)

While on one hand the federal government goes after companies employing undocumented immigrants, it doesn’t have a problem using some of these same people to fill jobs in its detention centers.


As many as 60,000 people being held at such centers were put to work last year, with many being paid only $1 a day. The rate is based on federal law adopted in 1950 that Congress has refused to update. At some local jails, workers are compensated merely with junk food, according to Ian Urbina of The New York Times.


These detainees perform a wide variety of tasks at the detention facilities, from preparing and serving food to cleaning floors. Correction officials claim the work is voluntary. However, many have complained that they were coerced into working during their detentions.


Much of the work is done to pad the bank accounts of private industry. A lawsuit has been filed by some of those held in a Tacoma, Washington, detention center, run by the GEO Group, where the plaintiffs claim they were thrown into solitary confinement for refusing to work and going on a hunger strike.


Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, told the Times that the program has made the U.S. government, “which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country.”


Others say the extremely low pay amounts to slave wages. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University who argues that  the program violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, told the newspaper.


About half of those who appear before immigration courts ultimately are allowed to stay in the United States.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor (by Ian Urbina, New York Times)

One Dollar Per Day: The Slaving Wages of Immigration Jail Work Programs - A History and Legal Analysis, 1943-Present (by Jacqueline Stevens, Northwestern University)


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