• The San Juan Daily Star

Immigration detainees are owed $17 million in back pay, jury says

A detainee pulling a cart of food trays at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Wash., in 2019.

By Eduardo Medina

A federal jury in Washington state has found that the operator of a for-profit detention center in Tacoma owed $17.3 million in back pay to immigration detainees who were denied minimum wage for the work they performed there.

The jury reached that conclusion Friday, two days after it found that GEO Group violated Washington’s minimum-wage laws by paying detainee workers $1 per day, according to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued the company in 2017.

“This multibillion-dollar corporation illegally exploited the people it detains to line its own pockets,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Today’s victory sends a clear message: Washington will not tolerate corporations that get rich violating the rights of the people.”

Adam Berger, a lawyer representing current and former detainees in a class-action lawsuit against GEO Group, said in an interview Sunday that he was “proud to have represented these individuals and grateful to the jury for seeing that justice is done in this case.”

GEO Group, which is based in Florida and last year reported more than $2 billion in revenue, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Sunday. The company argued in court filings that Washington pays prisoners in its correction facilities less than the state minimum wage, now $13.69 an hour, and that detainees were not employees under state law.

The case, which was heard in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, focused on detainees who were mainly from Mexico and Central America and had worked at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma since 2014.

More than 10,000 current and former detainees will be eligible to receive the back pay, Berger said, with some expected to be awarded less than $20 and others more than $30,000. The average award will be about $1,700, he said.

Berger said some former detainees who have returned to their native countries may not receive any money if they are hard to locate. “But we’re going to undertake robust efforts to try and find them or get the word out so that they can get in touch with us,” he said.

Detainees at the center, formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center, often did janitorial work, Berger said. They cleaned showers and toilets, mopped floors and sometimes cooked more than 4,000 meals a day for fellow detainees. The company didn’t employ barbers, Berger said, so the detainees also cut one another’s hair.

Goodluck Nwauzor, a former detainee and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that he worked for $1 a day cleaning the showers in a living unit that he shared with about 60 other men.

After testifying during the trial and hearing the jury’s decision, Nwauzor, who was born in Nigeria and was granted asylum in 2017, said his heart was “filled with joy.”

This week, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan is expected to determine how much GEO Group will have to pay the state for unjust enrichment through its underpaid detainee labor, according to Ferguson.

It was not clear if the company would appeal the verdict, but Berger said he “would not be surprised” if it did.

The outcome could have implications for other detention centers that use migrants for labor, making their treatment as “prisoners and criminals” unjust, said Erin Hatton, a professor of sociology and prison labor at State University of New York at Buffalo.

“They can’t be treated as such, and that’s what the law is saying,” she said. “And I do think that sends a powerful legal message, but it also sends a powerful cultural message.”

Although facilities don’t force them to work, Hatton said, many detainees see no choice because they need money to call friends and family, use the internet, pay for stamps or purchase snacks.

“To say that they’re not forced is not quite accurate — it just means that they’re not forced at gunpoint,” she said. “They’re given a choice, but it’s a choice to maybe not be in communication with their family.”

The detainees at the Tacoma center were being held while their immigration status was being sorted out, Berger said. Most had never been convicted of a crime, and of those who had, their criminal sentence had already been served, Berger said.

Immigration detainees, Berger said, are “deserving of fair pay for the work that they do keeping the facilities running.”

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