A class-action lawsuit alleges at least 60,000 immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to work for $1 per day or less at an immigrant detention center, a violation of federal anti-slavery laws, the Washington Post reports.
The prison, the Denver Contract Detention Facility, detains immigrants waiting for court appearances. The lawsuit was filed in 2014 and gained class action status last week following a ruling by U.S. District Judge John Kane. The facility, operated out of Aurora, Colorado by GEO Group, is under contract with ICE.
It's the first time in history where a class-action lawsuit accusing a U.S. prison company of forced labor has been allowed to progress.
"That's obviously a big deal; it's recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor," Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents low-wage workers, told the Post. "Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights."
GEO allegedly pays detainees $8 less than the state's minimum wage in Colorado, which is set at $9, and has not denied doing so -- saying that paying $1 a day does not violate any laws.
"We intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims," GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement, reports the Post. "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. 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."
The nine plaintiffs who were part of the original lawsuit claim that detainees who refuse to work are threatened with solitary confinement.
The lawsuit alleges six prisoners are selected every day randomly and forced to clean the facility’s housing units. The practice, the suit claims, violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery.
"Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we've alleged," Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, told the Post. "Whether you're calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You're being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force."
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