About 60,000 immigrants, many facing deportation, worked at the nation’s system of 250 detention centers last year for $1 a day.
The cheap labor, which the government says is legal, saves taxpayers millions of dollars every year. Private companies, which run the majority of the 250 immigrant detention centers, pay the detainees $1 or less a day to clean the facilities and prepare meals for fellow immigrants.
According to a story published on May 24, 2014, in The New York Times, the total population of immigrants in detention centers on any given day is about 30,000. Most stay for a month while their legal status is pending, but some end up remaining a year or longer. Of the 30,000 present on a given day, about 5,500 work either for what amounts to 13 cents an hour or, in some cases, credits toward more free time.
The Voluntary Work Program, including the payment rate of $1 per day, was established in 1950. Congress reviewed the program in 1979 but declined to increase the payment rate. A court has since ruled that the detainees are not entitled to the federal minimum wage.
Carl Takei, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted the irony of the situation in a statement to the Times, stating, “This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else fromhiring people without documents, the single largest employer ofundocumented immigrants in the country.”
In theory, the detainees can only work toward the operation and maintenance of the facility where they are located. But in practice, the rules don’t seem to be enforced. The Times cited the case of a detention facility near Houston where immigrants “prepare about 7,000 meals a day, half of which are shipped to the nearby Montgomery County jail.” In the case of a detention center near San Francisco, immigrants prepare meals which are delivered to homeless shelters.
Last month, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of immigrants who went on strike at a detention center in Tacoma, Washington. The work stoppage, which also included a hunger-strike, had broader goals than simply raising wages. Detainees were demanding an end to deportations. However, they also wanted higher wages and lower prices in the prison commissary, where a bottle of shampoo reportedly costs almost $9.00.