Let’s talk about a scandal. Everyday, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants perform work that could be done by citizens. They work as housekeepers, janitors, and cooks for staggeringly low wages. They have no choice about working, because their employer – the largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country – coerces them into to service. That this could happen throughout the U.S. is shocking. But the real scandal is that their employer is the United States federal government.
In an article in The New York Times, reporter Ian Urbina reveals how the government and private prison contractors take advantage of immigrants in detention, using them as a pool of captive, cheap labor. Last year, about 60,000 detainees worked for the government while in detention, in 55 out of the 250 detention facilities used by the government. They earned one dollar a day, far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
About half of immigrant detainees eventually win their cases, so they should not be treated like common criminals. More importantly, conservatives ought to wonder why the U.S. government is giving away jobs to undocumented immigrants (when this work could be done by citizens), and liberals ought to think about the due process and human rights violations of these detainees.
- Raúl Reyes
This work program is exploitative because immigrant detainees are not criminals. They are people who are awaiting a decision on their immigration status by a judge. Remember, being in the country without papers is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Detainees include immigrants seeking asylum, domestic abuse victims, and even legal residents and citizens who are held in error. They are not prisoners, and they should not be treated like prisoners.
Officials say that detainees work on a voluntary basis. “The (work) program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Gillian Christensen told the Times. Yet Urbina’s article cited instances of detainees who reported being bullied into working, or threatened with the loss of privileges. Detainees went on hunger strikes at a Tacoma, Washington facility to protest being placed in solitary confinement if they refused work assignments. A 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found evidence of “forced labor” in Georgia’s detention facilities. Often times, the “voluntary” nature of the work program is explained only in English to detainees who speak other languages.
Immigration officials say that these work programs save taxpayers money. But it is inconsistent for the government to forbid employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, while they are doing it themselves on a widespread basis (one university professor told the Times that a more accurate estimate of the number of immigrants working in detention was 135,000 a year). The private companies that cut costs using detainee labor do not reimburse the government; they simply increase their profits – which are considerable. In 2011, the Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group, the two companies that run most of the private detention centers, reported revenue of $1.7 billion, and $1.6 billion, respectively. That they would rake in such astronomical sums on the backs of detainee labor is unconscionable.
In fact, private contractors profit from detainees twice over. First, they use their labor at rock-bottom wages. Then, detainees are typically paid in the form of “credits” that they can use to purchase toiletries and phone calls, which are sold at grossly inflated prices in detention centers. So these companies doubly exploit detainees.
The situation is worse considering how slowly immigrants are processed through detention. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, immigration cases took an average of 516 days from start to finish. Successful immigration cases took longer, an average of 772 days. All the while, detainees languish in detention and are subjected to these unfair work programs. And a recent meltdown of the computer system used by immigration courts has only increased these delays.
Sure, some Americans believe that anyone behind bars should be put to work. But about half of immigrant detainees eventually win their cases, so they should not be treated like common criminals. More importantly, conservatives ought to wonder why the U.S. government is giving away jobs to undocumented immigrants (when this work could be done by citizens), and liberals ought to think about the due process and human rights violations of these detainees. Surely, reasonable people can agree that the U.S. detention system is ripe for a thorough review by the Department of Homeland Security.
The work programs in U.S. detention facilities are shameful and unjust. All people, including immigrant detainees, deserve to be paid fairly for their labor.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.