A group of 18 Republican congressmen is urging the Trump administration to defend private prisons against lawsuits alleging immigrant detainees are forced to work for a wage of $1 a day.
The members say that Congress in 1978 had explicitly set the daily reimbursement rate for voluntary work by detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, and that the same rate should apply in government-contracted private prisons.
“Alien detainees should not be able to use immigration detention as a means of obtaining stable employment that will encourage them to pursue frivolous claims to remain in the country and in detention for as long as possible,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and acting ICE director Thomas Homan.
In the March 7 letter, first reported by the Daily Beast, the congressmen argue that the detainees are not employees of private prisons, so they should not be able to file lawsuits seeking to be paid for their work.
“It is our expectation that you will soon get involved in this litigation and take the position that these lawsuits lack legal merit and should be dismissed,” they said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said Friday it has not yet confirmed that Sessions received the letter, and declined to respond to a Post request for comment. The letter was filed with a U.S. District Court in California by the GEO Group this week as part of a lawsuit against the company.
At least five lawsuits have been filed against private prisons, including GEO and CoreCivic, over detainee pay and other issues. The lawsuits allege that the private prison giants use voluntary work programs to violate state minimum wage laws, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, unjust enrichment and other labor statutes.
The state of Washington sued GEO last year for violating its minimum wage of $11 an hour and sought to force the company to give up profits made through detainee labor. The state argued that the wage floor should apply because GEO is a private company detaining people on civil, not criminal, charges.
In seeking to dismiss the case, the company asserted that the federal rate for work performed by detainees trumps that state’s minimum wage law.
“This is detention. It’s not a competitive work environment,” GEO attorney Joan Mell told a federal judge last November.
Inmates in Colorado and California have also sued the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company, alleging that they were forced to work for $1 per day to pay for necessities like food, water and hygiene products. Detainees performed janitorial work such as scrubbing floors and cleaning windows, as well as clerical work, washing laundry, even cutting hair. Detainees who objected were punished by “disciplinary segregation or solitary confinement” or referred for criminal prosecution, one suit alleged.
The company has repeatedly denied that detainees are forced to work against their will.
The government pays private prisons around $160 a day per immigrant detainee, money that human rights advocates say should go towards hiring staff to do the work that companies are instead forcing non-criminal detainees to perform for little or no pay.
“This is a testament to their own greed,” said Paul Wright, executive director with the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner advocacy group. “Instead of hiring somebody at minimum wage to do these maintenance tasks and housekeeping jobs, they would rather enslave these prisoners.”
Wright, whose organization is not involved in any of the lawsuits, said as non-criminals, immigration detainees retain the right to fair wages.
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said most states require convicted prisoners to work. Several states pay them nothing, but the bulk of states pay prisoners a trivial amount of between 8 and 25 cents an hour for jobs such as cooking and cleaning. Some states pay prisoners contracted to work for outside firms a few dollars an hour to staff call centers or manufacture clothing, Fathi said.
The arguments against paying the detainees outlined in the lawmakers' letter is "entirely frivolous," Fathi said, since the "13th Amendment makes clear that people who haven't been convicted of a crime can't be forced to work, period."
But a dispute remains over whether the work is mandatory or voluntary.
The letter asserted that paying immigration detainees more than the $1 a day would “provide an unnecessary windfall to the detainees, and drain the federal government of limited taxpayer resources.”
They assert that immigrant advocates, including officials in “sanctuary cities,” which have a policy of protecting illegal immigrants and not cooperating with federal authorities to deport them, have filed the “nuisance lawsuits” to raise the overall costs of immigration detention to discourage its use.
The letter was signed by Steve King (R-Iowa), Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.), Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.), John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), Brian Babin (R-Tex.), John Rutherford (R-Fla.) and Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.).
Private prisons have flourished under President Trump’s aggressive measures to detain and deport unauthorized immigrants. Sessions last year reversed an Obama-era directive to phase out the use of privately run federal prisons after officials deemed them to be less safe and effective than government-run detention facilities.
Sessions, in a memo last February, asserted that Obama’s directive impaired the Bureau of Prison’s ability to “meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” even though the 2016 directive did not affect ICE detainees.
The Trump administration awarded its first private prison contract to GEO, which last fall hosted a conference at Trump’s Doral golf resort. The company had also donated $250,000 toward Trump’s inaugural festivities, on top of the $225,000 a company subsidiary donated to a super PAC to elect Trump.
In the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, GEO has contributed a total of $17,500 to the campaigns of five of the lawmakers who signed the letter: Gaetz, Cook, Taylor, Ratcliffe and Rutherford. The company spent $1.7 million in 2017, a more than 70 percent increase from 2016, lobbying on issues that included the deportation of federal prisoners and alternatives to detention within ICE, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
UPDATE: GEO spokesman Pablo Paez provided the Post with a statement after publication. “The wage rates associated with this federally mandated program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress. As a service provider to the federal government, GEO is required to abide by these federally mandated standards and congressionally established guidelines. GEO has consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in these lawsuits, and we intend to vigorously defend our company against these baseless claims.”