HOUSTON — The kitchen of the detention center in Houston was bustling as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees. Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work: mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves.
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, some detainees said.
Federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers. Immigrant advocates question whether it is voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.
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Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, at 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services such as meal preparation for other government institutions.
Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the U.S., often because they were in the country legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge, or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.
“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”
Guzmán said he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention. He was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa for asylum from Guatemala, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error. He has since been granted permanent residency.
Officials at private prison companies declined to speak about their use of immigrant detainees, except to say that it was legal. Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year.
“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” said Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency. Detainees in the program are not officially employees, she said, and their payments are stipends, not wages. No one is forced to participate, she added, and there are usually more volunteers than jobs.
The compensation rules at detention facilities are remnants of a bygone era. A 1950 law created the federal Voluntary Work Program and set the pay rate at a time $1 went much further. (The equivalent would be about $9.80 today.) Congress last reviewed the rate in 1979 and opted not to raise it. It was later challenged in a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets workplace rules, but in 1990 an appellate court upheld the rate, saying that “alien detainees are not government ‘employees.’ ”
Immigrants in holding centers may be in the country illegally, but they may also be asylum seekers, permanent residents or U.S. citizens whose documentation is questioned by the authorities. On any given day, about 5,500 detainees of the 30,000-plus average daily population work for $1, in 55 of the roughly 250 detention facilities used by ICE. Local governments operate 21 of the programs, and private companies run the rest, agency officials said.
These detainees are typically compensated with credits toward food, toiletries and phone calls that they say are sold at inflated prices. (They can collect cash when they leave if they have not used all their credits.)
“They’re making money on us while we work for them,” said Jose Moreno Olmedo, 25, a Mexican immigrant who participated in the hunger strike at the Tacoma holding center and was released on bond from the center in March. “Then they’re making even more money on us when we buy from them at the commissary.”
Gary Mead, who was a top ICE administrator until last year, said the agency scrutinized contract bids from private companies to ensure they did not overestimate how much they could depend on detainees to run the centers.
Detainees cannot work more than 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, according to the agency. They are limited to work that directly contributes to the operation of their detention facility, said Christensen, the agency spokeswoman, and are not supposed to provide services or make goods for the outside market.
But that rule does not appear to be strictly enforced.
Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, Wash., who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group, control most of the immigrant-detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.
Corrections Corp. of America’s revenue rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.
Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county has saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.