IMMIGRATION

Federal judge OKs 'forced labor' class-action suit by immigrants against private prison company

A federal judge based in Denver approved a class-action lawsuit by former and current immigrant detainees against one of the largest private prison management companies in the United States.

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The lawsuit, filed in 2014, alleges that at a 1,500-bed detention center in Aurora, Colorado, that is run by GEO Group under contract to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detainees were forced to work for little or no pay and threatened with solitary confinement and criminal charges if they failed to comply.

U.S. District Judge John Kane, who has refused requests by GEO to dismiss the lawsuit or not allow it to proceed as a class-action case, said in a ruling Monday that there appeared to be sufficient basis in the complaint to allow it to move forward on behalf of some 50,000 former and present detainees held there.

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The lawsuit says GEO unjustly enriched itself through forced labor and violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits obtaining labor or services from someone by “means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint.”

The detainees, most of whom are held for civil immigration-related violations, were pressured to sweep and mop floors and clean toilets and showers, among other chores. For a $1 a day, the complaint said, detainees did laundry, prepared meals and cleaned the facility.

“Detainees were aware of the Sanitation Policy during their detention and claim that they performed the required duties to avoid solitary confinement,” the judge wrote in his decision. Kane added that the only recourse for immigrants held at the facility was a class-action suit, since “many…lack English proficiency…have limited financial resources and reside in countries around the world. It is very likely that these claims would not be brought by individual detainees, especially considering the case’s innovative nature.”

Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a nonprofit legal group representing the detainees, said to Fox News that using immigrant labor was how GEO was able to get by with just one full-time custodian for a large facility that houses more than 1,000 people. She said the judge’s ruling paves the way for immigrant detainees to fight back against what she described as exploitation by private prison firms.

“American immigration policy is too often driven by the profit motives of the private corporations that we pay to round up and detain our immigrants,” DiSalvo said. “Judge Kane’s ruling allows vulnerable detainees to band together and hold GEO accountable for profiteering on the backs of its captive labor force.”

In a statement to Fox News, GEO denied the allegations and said it will fight the suit. The company says it abides by federal standards in its management of the detention center.

“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Pablo Paez, GEO’s vice president of corporate relations, told Fox News.

“The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government," Paez said. "Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the federal Government’s national standards.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.