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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

Jailed immigrants paid $1 per day: Wash. state sues

Dozens of murals hang on the walls at the Northwest Detention Center. They're painted by detainees, and the designs must be approved by staff. Painting is also considered a voluntary job, and the artists are paid $1 per day for their work.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Dozens of murals hang on the walls at the Northwest Detention Center. They're painted by detainees, and the designs must be approved by staff. Painting is also considered a voluntary job, and the artists are paid $1 per day for their work.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing the company that runs the immigration detention center in Tacoma.

The lawsuit claims that GEO Group, Inc., the second-largest private prison operator in the nation, has been violating the state's minimum wage law for over a decade.

Ferguson said Wednesday that detainees in the work program at the Northwest Detention Center do virtually all non-security tasks.

The lawsuit states:

“Detainees perform a wide range of work at NWDC including preparing, cooking, and serving food to the detainee population; operating NWDC’s laundry service; cleaning living areas and bathrooms; and regularly painting walls and buffing floors.”

According to Ferguson, since at least 2005, GEO has paid detainees $1 per day for their labor.  

"Sometimes detainees are not paid in cash at all, instead GEO pays them in the form of snacks — chips or candy — for their work," Ferguson said.

Unlike state, county or municipal jails or prisons, which house people involved in the criminal justice system, Ferguson said there’s not an exemption for for-profit, private facilities like the Northwest Detention Center under the state’s minimum wage law.

The lawsuit claims GEO has made millions in ill-gotten profits at the facility through underpaying workers who are being held for civil immigration proceedings.

"GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits,” Ferguson said Wednesday.

The work program at the detention center is a voluntary work program, according to GEO. But Ferguson said some detainees feel compelled to participate.

“Detainees report that the general practice is that guards ask for detainee “volunteers” for work. If no one volunteers for certain work, guards will sometimes pick detainees to perform the work,” attorneys said in a statement.

The lawsuit requests that GEO follow the state's minimum wage law (current minimum wage in Washington is $11 per hour) and pay back excess revenue.

In a statement, GEO said the allegations were “baseless and meritless.”

"We intend to vigorously defend our company against these claims. The volunteer work program at all federal immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set exclusively by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards, which were promulgated by the Obama Administration in 2011. All ICE facilities operated by GEO, including the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments that meet the non-penal, non-punitive needs of individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities pursuant to the Federal government’s national standards."

GEO owns and operates the facility on contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the federal government has not held GEO accountable.

"They're supposed to be complying with state law as part of their partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But ICE is not taking those steps, and so I'm glad that our state is stepping up."

GEO runs more than 100 facilities across the country. In addition to the lawsuit from Washington state, they're currently facing a class action suit over work conditions in a Colorado facility. 

Year started with KUOW: 2015