Private Immigration Detention Center Must Follow State Laws

Private Immigration Detention Center Must Follow State Laws

By Seattle Times editorial board

The Seattle Times


SOME would call working for chips and candy or $1 a day cruel and unusual punishment. But Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has another description for the way immigrants are paid at the for-profit detention center in Tacoma: against the law.

Ferguson has filed a lawsuit demanding the multibillion-dollar corporation that runs the Northwest Detention Center pay its detainee workers nothing less than the state minimum wage, which is currently $11 an hour. He bases the lawsuit on the very agreement the federal government has with The GEO Group to operate the only privately run detention center in Washington state. It says GEO must comply with state and local laws and codes.


Immigrants held in the Tacoma center until their cases can be resolved may or may not be guilty of breaking any law. If they work while staying in the facility, they should be paid the minimum wage.

State prisons also do not pay minimum wage to inmates, but the wage law includes an exemption for state prisons and local jails and those inmates already have been convicted of a crime.

In the lawsuit filed last week in Pierce County Superior Court, Ferguson accused The GEO Group, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays about $100 per detainee a day, of exploiting workers for its own profits. GEO dismisses the allegations as baseless. The company expects to make up to $57 million a year when the Tacoma facility is at is full capacity of 1,575 detainees.

A similar lawsuit against a GEO detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, is making its way through U.S. District Court in Denver. As the detainees’ attorney, Nina DiSalvo, told The Denver Post, “There is a big difference between someone convicted of murder or rape and someone being held on a civil detainer for possible deportation.”

Not only is GEO taking advantage of detainees, this issue is just the tip of the iceberg on troubles in the for-profit private detention system.

A 2016 report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons found privately run prisons have more safety and security problems, more inmate and staff assaults, and more lockdowns, to name just a few of the findings.

Detainees at the Northwest Detention Center have held a number of hunger strikes, complaining of the work policy, as well as inadequate food, poor medical care and mistreatment by guards.

Although ICE has said it’s more efficient to have a private company run its detention center, efficiency does not trump human rights or obeying the law.