An estimated 60,000 immigrants worked at about 250 detention centers throughout the nation last year for as little as $1 a day.
Many of the illegal immigrants were facing deportation — and their labor saved taxpayers and the private companies that operate the centers more than $40 million last year, The New York Times reported.
They are used to clean the centers or prepare meals for other detainees while awaiting the outcome of their cases.
"I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup," Pedro Guzmán, 34, told the Times. He had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota, and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, primarily at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. "And I was in the country legally."
Guzmán told the newspaper that detention center officials required him to work even when he was running a fever and that he was threatened by guards with solitary confinement if he was late for his shift, which started at 2 a.m.
His family also spent over $75,000 on legal fees and lost income while he was detained, the Times reported. Guzmán was from Guatemala, and he was released in 2011 after his visa was renewed. It had been revoked based on clerical error, the Times reported.
Guzmán has since been granted permanent resident status.
On any day, about 30,000 immigrants are in the nation's detention centers. Most stay for a month while their legal status is pending, according to the Times, but some remain for a year or more.
About 5,000 of those 30,000 work for what breaks down to about 13 cents an hour, while others may get credit toward more free time or are paid with such things as sodas or candy bars, the Times reported.
Under the Voluntary Work Program, the detainees are paid $1 a day. The program, and the pay, was established in 1950, according to the Times.
The payment was not raised after Congress reviewed the program in 1979, the Times reported, and a federal court has since ruled that detainees are not eligible for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
"This, in essence, makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country," Carl Takei, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times.
At one detention center in the Houston area, 140 illegal detainees cook about 7,000 meals a day, half of which are shipped to a nearby county jail — while others work with criminal inmates at center in the San Francisco area to prepare about 900 meals every day, the Times reported.
In Tacoma, Wash., last month, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of detainees who went on strike at a center over higher wages and an end to deportations, the newspaper reported.
The stoppage included a hunger strike, and detainees also demanded lower prices at the center's commissary, where a bottle of shampoo costs $8.95, The Seattle Times reported.
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