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It is illegal in the United States to hire undocumented immigrants. But in federal detention centers, thousands of these men and women are doing jobs and getting paid far less than minimum wage. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Colorado allowed a lawsuit to challenge these work programs. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team reports.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Every day, thousands of immigrants clean, cook and perform maintenance work while they're held in detention. Detainees volunteer for these jobs. The pay is a dollar a day. Carl Takei is an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.
CARL TAKEI: The government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, has effectively become the biggest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country.
STARR: Private companies, like the GEO Group, operate roughly half of all detention centers in the U.S. Its Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado houses about 1,500 immigrants and is the focus of a class-action lawsuit alleging the center's work program is exploitative. Current and former detainees say some immigrants face retaliation by staff if they don't work. They also argue that those who do volunteer to work should be paid a fair market wage.
JACQUELINE STEVENS: The consequences of that put their business model in question.
STARR: Jacqueline Stevens is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. She says detainees basically make up the workforce at some detention centers.
STEVENS: They do the cooking, the cleaning, plumbing - everything except for guarding the people who are locked up there.
STARR: This is also the case in a lot of prisons, but detention centers are not prisons. They're a place to hold immigrants while they await deportation or asylum hearings. So while convicted criminals serving time forfeit wage protections, Stevens says that shouldn't be the case for detainees.
STEVENS: There's no legal authorization that would exempt them from the protections of federal labor laws.
STARR: In a statement, a representative from the GEO Group said he could not comment on specific allegations in the class-action lawsuit. But he pointed out that the volunteer work program, as well as the wage rates, are set by the federal government. Congress did, in fact, set the dollar-a-day pay rate for detainees more than 60 years ago. It hasn't been raised since. Stevens estimates that the GEO Group saves up to $72 million a year by not paying detainee workers the federal minimum wage.
STEVENS: Or about 25 percent of the company's total profits.
STARR: A lot of immigrants say they felt used in detention. Mario Gallejos is an asylum applicant from Mexico who spent three months at a center in Washington state. He was shocked by what he was paid.
MARIO GALLEJOS: (Through interpreter) We are talking about a dollar a day. Even the poorest people in Mexico earn more than that.
STARR: But Gallejos says taking a job in the kitchen was the only way he could afford to make phone calls to his wife. Nancy Hiemstra of Stony Brook University says most detainees are like Gallejos.
NANCY HIEMSTRA: They're laboring because they're desperate.
STARR: These immigrants don't have people on the outside providing money to buy extra food, clothes or phone cards - things that might make life less difficult inside a detention center. Hiemstra's found detainees pay up to seven times more for those items than they would be charged at a local Wal-Mart.
HIEMSTRA: Whatever they make, they spend in detention.
STARR: That means centers recoup almost all the money they pay detainees. In addition, the federal government pays an average of $120 per detainee per day. But the fact that centers can be run on cheap labor makes them more profitable. Carl Takei of the ACLU points out that companies would demand more money from the government if they faced higher labor costs.
TAKEI: It would take the detention system from being enormously expensive to being so expensive that Congress would not be willing to sustain our current detention levels.
STARR: Activists want to eliminate the low wages so private detention companies are no longer subsidized and the government sees the true cost of detaining immigrants. Alexandra Starr, NPR News.
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