Immigration detainees are held on civil, not criminal, charges. Therefore, imprisoned immigrants have argued for years they cannot legally be forced to work like prisoners while held in civil detention. In December 2017, Raul Novoa — a Mexican man living in Los Angeles on a green card — sued the GEO Group, the private prison corporation based in Boca Raton. He alleges that detainees were forced to work for the company for as little as $1 per day and that the absurdly small wages were illegal for detainees who hadn't been convicted of crimes.
But the case has stretched on for years — and now some eye-opening court documents are trickling out into the public domain. For starters, five other immigrant detainees have submitted statements to the court saying that to afford necessities such as toothpaste, they were forced to work for GEO's borderline slave wages. Other exhibits have included internal GEO emails from jail staffers complaining that immigrants were not scrubbing the detention facilities well enough.
In one email from April 2017, James Janecka — the facility administrator at GEO's Adelanto ICE Processing Center outside Los Angeles — complained to his staff that he had toured a wing of the facility and didn't see any immigrants cleaning anything. He then said the detainees should have their TV, Xbox, and recreation time suspended if they didn't clean hard enough. He wrote:
After a tour of the East building this morning; I was totally frustrated with the lack of cleaning that has been done in the last week. The building honestly looked the worst I have ever seen it in the 2.5 years that I have been here. There was not one detainee working or being asked to work in the entire building (housing units, hallways, kitchen, laundry,intake etc. NOT ONE.) This is totally unacceptable!! Once lunch is complete, I expect all TV, XBOX, and Recreation to be suspended until the building is clean and presentable. We can't shut down court, medical, visits, attorney visits, etc.
We have a tour tomorrow and Friday. But, a high level of sanitation should be expected and maintained daily. The buildings should always be tour ready.
Make sure plenty of cleaning supplies are available to those who will be tasked with this project.
In May, Janecka complained again. Emails show his subordinates then forced immigrant detainees to wax floors, mop, sweep, and wipe down entire wings of the detention center.
Those emails are sure to bolster Novoa's claims that GEO staffers force immigrants to work. In his previously reported 2017 complaint, Novoa alleged GEO maximizes its profits by exploiting immigrants as a cheap and captive labor force. His original complaint stated GEO detainees work in kitchens, clean laundry, maintain libraries, cut other detainees' hair in facility barbershops, and even perform clerical work for GEO. Novoa says he was forced to work as a janitor and threatened with solitary confinement if he refused to take on cleaning shifts.
"If given a meaningful choice, Mr. Novoa would not have worked for $1 per day," the suit stated.
Since then, GEO has responded to Novoa's allegations in court. The company (which recently hired former Florida Senate President Joe Negron as its chief lawyer) claimed that, because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement technically pays the detainees, GEO does not "employ" the immigrants and therefore is not subject to California's minimum-wage law. GEO also claims its "work program," which pays $1 daily, is entirely voluntary.
"Voluntary Work Program participants choose to perform self-care tasks like meal preparation, basic housekeeping chores, and grooming to eliminate idle time while in detention," the company stated in court.
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But in previously unreported filings, five additional Adelanto detainees — Abdiaziz Karim, Gagandeep Marhwaha, Ramon Mancia, Jamie Campos Fuentes, and Fernando Munoz Aguilera — all filed court declarations stating they, too, were threatened if they didn't perform work for GEO.
Some of the claims are staggering: Marwaha, an Indian national who lived in San Bernardino before being detained in 2017, says he was never paid for manual labor he undertook to help GEO, including painting hallways and cleaning wings of the compound. Worse, he says he was forced to clean maggots and worms out of shower drains; if he refused, guards threatened to transfer him to another housing unit. Marwaha completed the work but says he wasn't paid for that either.
Aguilera, meanwhile, says he worked as a cook in the kitchens at Adelanto from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. for about a month and was paid just $1 daily, or roughly 18 cents per hour. All of the detainees who filed new claims in court stated they were threatened if they didn't work and worried they could not afford basic commissary items without performing labor for GEO. The detainees estimated hundreds of fellow immigrants perform similar work for GEO, which is one of the most well-connected corporations in Florida and a powerful lobbying force at the federal level.
"Regardless of how many hours I work in a day or week, GEO pays me only $1.00 per day, or nothing at all," detainee Ramon Mancia wrote last month. "I do not earn minimum wage for the work I perform at the Adelanto Facility for GEO. I participate in the Work Program in order to buy daily necessities that GEO fails to provide for me, including food and personal hygiene items. I fear that if I cannot afford purchases from commissary, I will not have access to those necessities."