Many of the immigrants that come to the United States are fleeing persecution, and abuse in their home countries. One of the requirements to demonstrate a person is eligible to be a refugee is that the government was unable or unwilling to protect them in their home countries. Often this is shown by the country conditions, such as areas of civil war and corruption, or showing a pattern and/or practice of those governments’ failures in protecting groups of their citizens. For these immigrants they do not expect to be treated like criminals upon entering the United States, yet that is exactly what happens. Many are detained, and given the new administrations push for enforcing the immigration laws, more and more immigrants are going to be detained. This is going to lead to an increase in the use of the highly criticized, privately operated immigration detention facilities across the United States. For example, the GEO Group recently extended their contract for the detention center in Adelanto, CA until 2021.
The immigration detention centers have been a focus of many civil and human rights advocates due to the terrible conditions in many of those facilities that led to deaths, inadequate health care, and now borderline slavery. One issue that has been brought to light recently is the extremely low wages being paid to immigrants who are detained that volunteer to do work. A detention center in Colorado is facing a class action lawsuit because approximately 60,000 immigrants formerly held there are alleging that they were coerced to do work in the facility or risk being put in solitary confinement. This same detention center run by the GEO Group reported $2.2 billion in revenue and nearly $163 million in adjusted net income last year, while paying detainees who actually volunteered to work in the facility only $1 a day in order to cut down on the costs of hiring positions such as janitors. The GEO Group receives from the government, at least in their contract with the Adelanto Detention Facility, $111 per detainee per day guaranteed for up to 975 detainees. After that, they get $50 per detainee per day, which creates an incentive to pack the detention center with more and more detainees.
In contrast, criminal detainees, who have been convicted of a crime, are paid a fraction or less of minimum wage. The average inmate’s wage in private prisons is approximately 93 cents an hour, and can go as low as 16 cents an hour according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Advocates for prison reform debate many of the potential benefits of allowing for higher wages for criminal detainees, and have labeled private prison systems that pay such low wages as slavery. The lack of paying detainees is a problem in our own criminal justice system so it is no surprise that it is also a pervasive problem in an immigration system that treats immigrants like criminals. The immigration system is in fact civil in nature. Immigrants are not criminals, and should not be subjected to being treated like criminals. Immigration lawyers should continue to document these abuses when working with their clients. An increase in challenges brought against the private detention centers will hopefully lead to reforming the private detention center.