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Detained immigrants were paid candy or $1 a day for labor. They’re owed $17 million, a jury says.

Detainees work in the kitchen of the Northwest ICE Processing Center during a press tour on Dec. 16, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. (Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article misspelled Erin Hatton's last name. It has been corrected.

Goodluck Nwauzor fled Boko Haram militants in Nigeria only to end up cleaning showers for $1 a day while housed at one of the United States’ largest immigrant detention facilities.

Now his testimony has helped convince a federal jury that GEO Group, which runs the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Wash., violated the state’s minimum wage laws and owes thousands of immigrant detainees $17.3 million in backpay.

“I feel so great, and I thank almighty God, who made it possible,” Nwauzor told The Washington Post by phone Saturday. “I really appreciate the jury’s decision.”

The decision on Friday means Nwauzor and roughly 10,000 other detainees will receive individual awards ranging from $7 for a single day worked, to more than $30,000 in the instance of a detainee who worked almost 700 days, according to Adam J. Berger of the Seattle-based Schroeter Goldmark & Benderorthat, the law firm representing Nwauzor and the other detainees.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan will decide how much money GEO Group must pay the state for unjust enrichment — a sum on top of the $17.3 million already ordered.

Nwauzor’s attorneys called the jury’s award “precedent-setting,” while labor experts said it could have wider implications. Erin Hatton, a University of Buffalo sociology professor who wrote a book on coerced labor, said the jury’s award sends a strong message to corporations that labor protections extend to people in pretrial detention.

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“Immigration detention center labor is a kind of murky area that’s been operating under the aegis of prison labor,” Hatton said. “It’s been in dispute, but this ruling shows that they can’t get away with it without scrutiny.”

Representatives for GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment Saturday, and it is unclear whether the company will appeal the decisions. The jury first ruled Wednesday that the private prison operator violated the state’s minimum wage laws and ruled two days later on the compensation.

The rulings conclude two of three phases in the class-action lawsuit against GEO Group that was combined with a 2017 lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) over the company’s minimum wage violations.

Ferguson in a statement Wednesday said the jury’s decision sends a clear message: “Washington will not tolerate corporations that get rich violating the rights of the people.”

The GEO Group has argued it did not have a paid employee relationship with the immigrant detainees housed its facility; rather, they were paid a stipend as part of the “voluntary work program” the facility is required to provide as a condition of its contract with the federal government via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The company, which last year reported revenue of more than $2.3 billion, in court filings characterized the work program as an unprofitable burden that was administratively inefficient given the high turnover of detainees.

Ferguson said at the outset of his 2017 lawsuit against the Florida-based company that the company’s labor practices were not only unfair to the detainees but to local job seekers.

“If GEO did not exploit detainees to perform this work, these are jobs that might have gone to people in the community,” Ferguson said in 2017.

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Detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center were paid a $1 per day regardless of how many hours they worked in various cooking, cleaning, laundry and maintenance roles, if they were paid at all; some detainees were paid with candy or other snacks, according to court records.

Berger, Nwauzor’s attorney, notes that none of the individuals housed at the detention center had been convicted of a crime but were in administrative detention while their status was sorted out.

“A lot of them were people who were brought to the country as children, who thought they were lawful permanent residents until something happened that attracted the attention of ICE,” he said. Others, like Nwauzor, were asylum seekers who presented themselves lawfully at the border.

“Before I came to America in 2016, I was a very good business guy,” Nwauzor told The Post. “I left Nigeria because my life was at risk.”

He traveled to Central America and made his way to Mexico before presenting himself at a port of entry in California and was eventually moved to detention center in Tacoma. There, he signed up for the work program in hopes of earning money to send home, or buy items from the commissary, where everyday necessities tend to be at least twice the cost as in a grocery store.

For part of his eight-month detention, he was tasked with cleaning a “stinking” five-stall shower facility used by 50 to 60 men each day, disinfecting the walls and clearing the drains.

“At the end of the day, I got one dollar,” he said. He was unsure of his options and described those in the program as feeling powerless and like they were treated like “animals” or worse. He said most of the guards assumed the detainees in custody were criminals.

“We were afraid to ask some of the questions. You have no power of your own to do what you want to do. You have no control,” he said. “They took advantage of us.”

Now, Berger and the other attorneys face the task of contacting the detainees who are eligible for back pay, which he estimates will average $1,700 per person.

“Tracking people down is going to be a challenge, and we’re going to do the best we can,” Berger said. Eligible detainees are those who took part in the voluntary work program from September 2014 onward. Berger estimates a quarter of them were allowed to stay in the country while the rest were returned to their country of origin. His firm plans to put out announcements in countries like Mexico, China and India, where many of the detainees hailed from, and work with immigration lawyers whose clients were in the facility.

Nwauzor was granted asylum status in 2017 and received his green card in 2018. He worked for a hotel in Seattle before being laid off during the pandemic. He now works at a beverage company where he said he is fairly paid and able to reflect on his decision to challenge a powerful company.

“My friends said, ‘Goodluck, don’t go, don’t go!’ But I have to do it,” he said of his decision to turn to the court system. “I have to speak up. I can’t stay silent.”

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