Article from The Denver Post
Class action suit: Immigrants held in Aurora required to work for $1 a day, threatened with solitary if refused
Suit on behalf of 62,000 detainees could have far-reaching impact as President Trump ramps up immigration enforcement
About 62,000 people who were held in an Aurora immigration detention center and required to work, sometimes for $1 a day, while they awaited possible deportation have been certified as a class in a lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Senior Judge John Kane’s ruling could have far-reaching implications, potentially boosting the cost of holding immigration detainees by millions of dollars at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration gears up to deport millions more people who are living in the U.S. illegally.
“It’s a huge step forward for all the detainees,” said Boulder attorney Brandt Milstein, one of several attorneys representing the class in U.S. District Court in Denver. “This lawsuit is a win for immigrants because it exposes the true cost of detaining immigrants.”
Colorado felons are also paid a fraction of the state minimum wage for their work in prison, but they have been convicted of crimes and have lost certain rights as a consequence, including the right to own guns and to vote. But the people held at the Aurora facility are only civilly detained.
“There is a big difference between someone convicted of murder or rape and someone being held on a civil detainer for possible deportation,” plaintiff’s attorney Nina DiSalvo said.
The lawsuit accuses GEO Group, which operates the 1,500-bed Aurora Detention Facility under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, of forcing detainees to work, a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Among other things, the act is intended to combat forced labor and slavery. The lawsuit seeks “more than $5 million” in damages for as many as 60,000 detainees who performed sanitation chores like cleaning toilets without pay over the past decade.
The lawsuit also accuses GEO, which runs numerous detention facilities and prisons across the U.S., of unfair enrichment at the expense of 2,000 detainees paid $1 a day for work such as preparing food and doing laundry during the past three years.
GEO claims that its work program is voluntary and that it employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors to ensure compliance with ICE guidelines, spokesman Pablo Paez said in an e-mail Thursday.
“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” Paez wrote. “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.”
The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of Alejandro Menocal, Marcos Brambila, Grisel Xahuentitla, Hugo Hernandez, Lourdes Argueta, Jesus Gaytan, Olga Alexaklina, Dagoberto Vizguerra and Demetrio Valerga. It accuses GEO of threatening to put detainees in solitary confinement for up to three days if they don’t work.
Kane refused a request for summary dismissal when it was first filed in 2014 against GEO and similar immigrant detention facilities across the country.
Detainees claim that compulsory duties under GEO’s sanitation policy fall outside the scope of ICE‘s personal housekeeping requirement.
GEO claimed that none of the detainees have ever been placed in solitary confinement for refusing to clean and that the federal trafficking act applies to human trafficking in the sex trade.
Kane said it is irrelevant that none of the detainees had ever been placed in solitary confinement “since the forced-labor statute includes threats.”
Kane’s certification means that all current and former detainees at the Geo facility were automatically added as members of the class.
Class actions are an exception to the rule that litigation is conducted on behalf of individuals, Kane noted. In order to certify this case as a class action Kane found that the potential plaintiff pool is unmanageable in size, that the cases are sufficiently similar and that attorneys can adequately protect all members of the class.
The judge noted that members of the class are impoverished and it would be unlikely that they could hire an attorney.
“All share the experience of having been detained in the facility and subjected to uniform policies that purposefully eliminate nonconformity,” Kane wrote. “The questions posed in this case are complex and novel, but the answers to those questions can be provided on a class-wide basis.”