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Lawsuit alleges ‘forced labor’ in immigrant detention

A new class-action lawsuit alleges the private company behind one of the nation’s largest immigrant detention centers makes millions in profits while forcing detainees to work for meager wages.

Detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia generally make between $1 and $4 a day for tasks such as preparing food, mopping floors and doing laundry, according to the lawsuit, which describes the practice as a “deprivation scheme” and alleges it’s a violation of human trafficking laws. Detainees who work double shifts can earn up to $8 a day.

Part of the scheme, according to the lawsuit: Depriving detainees of basic necessities like food, toothpaste, soap and toilet paper, so they have to work to pay for those items from the detention center’s commissary.

A spokesman for CoreCivic, which owns and operates the facility, said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

But spokesman Jonathan Burns said work programs at all the company’s immigration detention facilities are “completely voluntary” and operate in full compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s standards and follow federally mandated reimbursement rates.

“We have worked in close partnership with ICE for more than 30 years and will continue to provide a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care,” Burns said.

The lawsuit alleges that:

• CoreCivic uses detainees as “a ready supply of available labor” rather than hiring local workers

• Forcing detainees to work and paying them far less than minimum wage amounts to a violation of human trafficking laws

• Detainees at Stewart who refuse to work are threatened with solitary confinement and with the withholding of basic necessities

The plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of civil rights groups and lawyers, include Wilhen Hill Barrientos and Margarito Velazquez Garcia, two detainees currently at Stewart, and Shoaib Ahmed, a former detainee at the facility.

“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with the impossible choice — either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Barrientos said in a written statement released Tuesday.

“If I didn’t work,” Barrientos said, “I would never be able to call my family.”

This isn’t the first time current and former immigration detainees have filed a lawsuit arguing that low wages they’re paid are illegal. Similar cases are pending in several other states.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox also declined to comment on Tuesday’s lawsuit, saying the agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Cox said ICE detention standards in place at Stewart include a voluntary work program. The detention standards state: “Detainees shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping.”