The federal government established the rate of pay for undocumented workers in detention centers and prisons at $1 per day back in 1979 and this pay rate has not been adjusted since. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not consider $1 for a day’s labor to be pay, anyway; officially, what it pays detained immigrants is referred to in its documentation as an “allowance.”
José Coyote Pérez, an immigrant laborer and labor activist in upstate New York, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on February 24 and is prisoner number A#099757267 in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York. He and other new detainees held at the Buffalo facility are working there and they are being paid $1 per day, it has been confirmed by activists.
ICE’s official documentation about the “Voluntary Work Program” (revised in December 2016) states: “Detainees shall be provided the opportunity to participate in a voluntary work program…While not legally required to do so, ICE affords working detainees basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections.” That second sentence is chilling: Basic safety and health standards are not required but ICE chooses to “afford” them to working detainees, voluntarily.
In the official documentation, compensation is set at “at least $1.00 (USD) per day,” which means that some prisons or detention centers might pay more.
Some do. According to a 2012 article in Truthout, Corrections Corporation of America paid a kitchen worker $3 per day, triple the minimum.
Workdays are set at a maximum of eight hours per day for a maximum of forty hours per week. Thus, detainees are being paid $5 per week for 40 hours of work. Detainees like José Coyote Pérez are being held pending a hearing or deportation. Not convicted of anything, as their hearings have not yet been held, they are working for $5 per week. The irony that he is a labor activist is lost on no one.
In February, a 2014 lawsuit that alleges forced labor at a Denver-area ICE facility run by the GEO Group, a private prison company, was expanded to a class action suit by District Court Judge John Kane that could involve tens of thousands of immigrant detainees. The judge’s action expanded the scope of the case to potentially include up 60,000 detainees—all detainees held at the facility since October 22, 2004.
The lawsuit only affects those who were held at the ICE facility at Aurora, Colorado, but it might be a positive legal precedent for detainees at other privately owned detention centers (jails), at least those who can document abuses. (And remember, ICE’s own documentation points out that compliance with OSHA regulations is not “legally required,” so the standards for abuse may have to qualify as horrifying to win a legal audience.)
Nine of the 10 largest immigration detention prisons are privately run, and all but two of the 10 largest detention centers are run by one of the two largest private prison corporations: Corrections Corporation of America or the GEO Group.
The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, in which Perez is being held, is not privately-owned. The contract for its internal operations, its “management support services” in the language of corporate prisons, was awarded to a private corporation at the end of 2014. AGS, “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Akima, LLC, an Alaska Native Corporation,” “prides itself on total detention management solutions.”
Thus, some of the private prisons pay larger allowances to detainees, because, as the law stipulates, compensation is “at least $1.00 per day.” The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility may be constrained from compensating its detainees and prisoners by its not being owned privately.
A Georgetown Immigration Law Journal article from 2015 entitled “One Dollar Per Day” concludes: “[I]n recent years the GEO Group, Inc., CCA, AKAL Security, Ahtna Technical Services, Community Education Centers (CEC), and several other security firms will have employed ICE residents for millions of shifts of four to eight hours and longer at one dollar per day.”
José Coyote Pérez has not been convicted of anything, has not been deported. If he is performing labor in the ICE facility in Batavia right now, and it is alleged that he is, then he is being paid $1 per day. Why? It is wrong enough that he is a prisoner there. Why is he also one of the thousands of people recently detained by ICE performing labor for a company like AGS for a pitiable fraction of the minimum wage?