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In a Warning Shot to Other States, Federal Judge Rules Immigrant Detainees in Washington Must Be Paid More Than $1 a Day

They have held thousands of prisoners for yearsWhile they waited for the immigration court trial, immigrants were paid $1 per day to clean, mop and scrub toilets as well as do laundry. Washington facility, where they were being keptThe following is a list of. GEO Group was contracted by the government during that period to manage the operations of the firm.This facility is Northwest ICE Processing CenterHe was making millions in the United States. Increase profits
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This balance of power was shifted on Nov. 2. This extraordinary move was taken by the Supreme Court. Federal jury, U.S. District Court Western District Washington ordered GEO Group Provide$17.3 Million in backpay for more than 10,000 detainees (both current and former), some of which had done the almost-unpaid labor back in 2005.

Additional to the award by the jury, federal Judge Robert Bryan issued an injunction halting GEO Group’s labor practice and requiring the company, going forward, to pay the state’s minimum wage—$13.69—to all detainees participating in the company’s Voluntary Worker Program. Responding to a similar lawsuit filed by Bob, the Washington State Attorney General. Ferguson, Judge Bryan also ordered GEO Group to pay the state $5.9 million on the grounds that the company had unjustly enriched itself with “unfair labor practices.”

Experts in legal matters say that although the decisions are only applicable to Washington, they could potentially have major national implications. Many expect the federal court ruling to catalyze a wave of similar challenges in states with labor laws that mirror Washington’s. “I just don’t think a case of this magnitude…is going to go unnoticed across the country, that’s just not going to happen,” Attorney General Ferguson stated that he intends to share details and the results with state attorneys general.

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Judge Bryan as well the jury were able to clearly and effectively argue that immigrant detainees do not constitute criminals. People who are convicted of a crime in the U.S. do not have to be subject to labor laws while they are incarcerated. As they are awaiting trial, immigrant detainees will be held. Civil proceedings to determine if they can remain in the U.S., fit a different category — and are therefore entitled to minimum wage for their labor.

“I’d be shocked,” Ferguson tells TIME, “if [this case] did not have a ripple effect.”

A nationwide ripple effect

It’s already getting attention. Colorado has lawyers who represent up to 40,000.GEO Group has filed paperwork for a class action suit. U.S. District Court for the District of ColoradoDetailing how Judge Bryan ruled on the Washington case. The Colorado plaintiffs echo Washington Attorney General Ferguson’s argument almost exactly—that GEO Group InjustlyDetainees were paid $1 per day for their work. Alejandro Menocal was one of the plaintiffs in this case. He was being held at Aurora Detention Facility (also run by GEO Group) and was given $1 per day for his cleaning work.

“We’d like to see the GEO Group stop profiting from the labor of detained immigrants,” says Juno Turner, an attorney on the case. It’s important, she adds, “that we as a society try to understand the way that for-profit companies are benefiting from this kind of exploitation of people.”

Michael Hancock is an attorney who represented immigrant detainees in privately run centers. He believes the Washington state decision represents a significant paradigm shift. For years, he says, federal courts have “conflated those criminal incarcerated prisoners with civil detainees under the immigration law.” While he and other attorneys representing immigrant detainees argued that was “an inappropriate analogy,” they haven’t, so far, found traction.

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Earlier this year, Hancock represented Desmond Ndambi, who was paid $1 a day in 2017 to manage a library at New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, which was run by CoreCivic, a private company that contracted with the government to run the facility. The Cibola case was dismissed by a New Mexico District Court Judge at the close of 2019. In March, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court judge’s dismissal.

In his opinion, Washington Judge Bryan named the case. “I hope that other judges who review these proceedings will not be swayed by the idea, as quoted in the Ndambi vs CoreCivic case…that ‘fair payment for prisoners is too outlandish to consider,’” he wrote.

While Ndambi’s case is closed, two very similar lawsuits are ongoing in California, also against GEO Group and CoreCivic. One case involved Raul Novoa who was arrested at Adelanto Detention Center. According to court papers, he received $1 per day for barber and janitorial work. Lawyers in that case did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

The plaintiff in California’s other case is Sylvester Owino was paid $1 a day to clean CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Center on and off in his nearly 10-year long detention between 2005 and 2015, according to court documents. The lawyer representing the defendant in this case Due to ongoing litigation, I was unable to comment.

John Moore—Getty ImagesA former immigrant detained at Adelanto Detention Facility from 2012 to 2015 worked for just $1 per day. He now sues GEO Group, the private contractor that runs the facility.

There are no good choices

According to court papers, immigrants who took part in work programs at CoreCivic or GEO Group sites described long working hours and abuse from the officers. Hancock was one of the lawyers that conducted interviews with ex-detainees in CoreCivic’s case. He said many of them accepted the lowly $1/day wage for basic resources like food and phone calls.

“It allows you to buy ramen noodles at the canteen to supplement what is otherwise a pretty dreary diet,” Hancock says. “It can allow you to make phone calls…Even though it’s a pittance, it’s something that allows you to sort of supplement what you’re getting from the detention facility, which isn’t much and can really improve your quality of life.”

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Orlando Zavalza Marquez, a plaintiff in the Washington case, testified that a GEO Group officer forced him to work a shift in the Northwest ICE Processing Center’s kitchen, helping to feed between 1,000 to 1,500 detainees, even when he was feeling sick. Marquez said that he left his job in the kitchen and made a complaint to ICE. The matter was not resolved. He later went back working in the kitchen, “because I ran out of money, I was hungry, and I needed some more food,” Marquez said in court.

Adam Berger (a Washington attorney representing plaintiffs in a class action) says that he hopes the Washington case will provide insight into business models that exploit immigrant or other labor. “This is a significant decision with respect to these privately run, privately owned immigration detention facilities,” he tells TIME. “It’s also symptomatic of a larger issue in our country…This is an extreme example of that [exploitative behavior], but it’s something that unfortunately, is far too common throughout our economy.”

GEO Group is in hot water

GEO Group has 54 facilities that are located across the nation. Nine of them are detention centers for immigrants and run under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to court documents, the ICE contract mandates GEO Group’s operation of a Voluntary Worker Program. However, it also stipulates that compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local labor laws must be observed.

GEO Group has temporarily suspended its Voluntary Work Program at Northwest ICE Processing Center in Washington state while it appeals the district court’s decision, according to court documents.

“GEO strongly disagrees with the verdict and judgments in the retrial of the lawsuits,” the company said in a public statement, noting that this is the second time the Washington state cases have been tried. The first time ended in mistrial because the jury couldn’t reach an unanimous decision. “GEO intends to take all necessary steps to vigorously defend itself.”

The spokesperson of the company declined to comment further, but referred TIME to TIME’s public statement.

The next step in the Washington class action case, Berger says, is to locate the 10,000 plaintiffs who qualify for backpay — a challenging task because of how much time has lapsed since the person was in detention and because many plaintiffs have likely been deported. GEO could appeal the court’s decision. This, he says, would mean that the payout may be held in court longer.

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