Immigrant detainees file lawsuit alleging unfair labor practices by local ICE processing centers

·3 min read

Jul. 20—Moldy showers. Dirty toilets. Rampant pests.

Detainees at the Mesa Verde and the Golden State Annex Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers located in Kern County claimed these conditions proliferated in local facilities after inadequate staffing caused sanitation to decline and detainees abstained from cleaning while protesting inadequate pay.

Immigrant detainees are bound to participate in the so-called Voluntary Work Program enforced by the facilities' private owners, the GEO Group, Inc., and earn $1 per day, five days a week. But immigrants have been protesting for about two months in each facility by halting work after claiming their labor is unpaid and underpaid. They recently filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging GEO Group violated state and federal labor laws, and their attorney spoke about it Wednesday.

"We will ensure accountability and justice for the workers in detention who are having their labor exploited and are not being paid the minimum wage they are entitled to," said Lisa Knox, the legal director from the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice who is representing the plaintiffs.

A GEO Group spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday that individuals in their facilities are required to maintain their personal living areas in a clean and sanitary condition when detained in ICE processing centers. GEO is also contractually required to implement the Voluntary Work Program on behalf of ICE, the statement noted.

"The allegations in the lawsuit are completely without merit and will be vigorously defended by GEO in Court," the statement continued.

The complaint, which was filed July 13 in federal court, also alleges that participation in the Voluntary Work Program is not by choice. GEO deprives immigrants of necessary cleaning services, personal hygiene items and other services so detainees must work to get these items, according to the complaint.

Protesters also face disciplinary action such as solitary confinement for refusing to work, the complaint alleges. Pedro Figueroa, a detainee at Mesa Verde, and another person were placed into solitary confinement and charged with engaging or inciting a demonstration when their dorm joined the ongoing labor strike, Knox noted.

Also representing clients in this lawsuit are the Centro Legal De La Raza, an agency providing legal services to low-income and immigrant communities, and the San Francisco-based law firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.

"We don't understand the hypocrisy: outside of detention we're not allowed to work because of our immigration status, and here we're told we can work but they only pay us $1 a day," a labor striker inside Mesa Verde said in a statement issued last month. "We feel they're taking advantage of us and our situation."

As of Wednesday, the workers had been protesting for 80 days at Mesa Verde and 43 days at Golden State Annex, Knox said.

GEO group is a for-profit organization, Knox noted, which shouldn't allow them to profit from unlawful practices imposed on detainees.

Knox believes California law backs the detainees' claims. A judge issued a preliminary judgment in a case stemming from a detention facility in Adelanto, a city in San Bernardino County, stating detainees were defined as "employees" under California labor laws. That case is still pending.

The complaint alleges GEO's policies violate California minimum wage law, California common law, the California Unfair Competition Law and the California and federal Trafficking Victims Protection Acts. Detainees said in a statement they should be paid $15, which is the minimum wage in California.

"We want to be very clear: We are human beings and we have rights," the detainees said in a statement announcing their lawsuit last week. "GEO and ICE run these facilities with unchecked power."

A hearing for this case is scheduled for Nov. 1.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.