Alexandra F. Levy is a senior staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Legal Center, which filed an amicus brief in support of immigrant detainees in Menocal v. GEO Group.
Who stands to gain from the Trump administration’s immigration policies? Not the children who have been forcibly seized from their parents. Not asylum seekers fleeing violence in their countries. Not the United States — or its standing in the world. One possibility? Private for-profit prison companies.
The two largest private prison contractors in the United States, GEO Group and CoreCivic, house thousands of immigrant detainees across the country. These corporations now face allegations that they force immigrant detainees to perform unpaid labor inside their facilities.
Since President Trump took office, immigrant detainees have brought five separate human trafficking and forced labor lawsuits against these two private prison companies. (An earlier case was filed in 2014.) The lawsuits allege that GEO Group and CoreCivic compelled the detainees to work cleaning toilets, showers and communal housing units without pay and under threat of punishment.
Two San Diego residents, Sylvester Owino and Jonathan Gomez, brought one such suit. Owino and Gomez allege that at various times between 2005 and 2015, they were detained for immigration violations at a CoreCivic-run facility called the Otay Mesa Detention Center. They claim that during their respective detentions, CoreCivic forced them and other detainees to scrub bathrooms, wash windows and clean other parts of the facility, all under threat of physical restraint and solitary confinement. Now, they are seeking to recover what they say they are owed — and trying to prohibit CoreCivic from profiting from such practices in the future.
Additional suits filed against CoreCivic in California, Texas and Georgia make similar allegations, as do suits filed against GEO Group in California and Colorado. GEO Group has denied the allegations, arguing in a court filing that “the household duties expected of detainees do not involve GEO in ‘trafficking’ persons for forced labor.” And while a spokesman for CoreCivic said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation, the company also maintains that its programs are “completely voluntary” and follow federal standards.
But if the allegations are true, then both companies are violating federal human trafficking laws that prohibit forced labor and involuntary servitude.
Courts are taking these lawsuits seriously. Just last month, a federal judge in California — a Republican appointee — rejected CoreCivic’s argument that human trafficking laws do not apply to private detention facilities under contract with the federal government, thus allowing the case to continue.
Similarly, a federal court of appeals in Colorado recently ruled that a human trafficking case against GEO Group can proceed as a class action. The class includes as many as 60,000 current and former detainees who allege that they were held in forced labor, prompting GEO Group to respond in an appeal that the suit “poses a potentially catastrophic risk to GEO’s ability to honor its contracts with the federal government.”
The implications of these cases reach far beyond the individual civil cases. Many of the immigrants detained at GEO Group and CoreCivic facilities would not legally be permitted to work outside the detention centers’ fences. These lawsuits make a startling claim: Private detention corporations, touted as “job-creators,” are using detainee labor to avoid creating jobs for U.S. citizens.
Indeed, individuals in a lawsuit against GEO Group allege that the company paid only one janitor in its 1,500-bed facility in Colorado. Instead of hiring U.S. workers, they allege, GEO Group forces detainees to work. Bryan Lopez, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center team litigating one of the cases, recently observed that the U.S. government contractors running these facilities are among the largest beneficiaries of undocumented labor in the United States.
A February 2017 leaked Trump administration memo revealed the administration’s plan to more than double the number of immigration detention beds in the United States from 34,000 to 80,000. That was good news for for-profit prison companies, as reflected in their surging stock prices and the promise of future government contracts. But the lawsuits allege that these profits come on the backs of immigrant detainees held in forced labor. And forced labor, even in a detention center, is a crime.