Politics & Government

State sues Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center for paying immigrant detainees $1 a day

Washington state’s attorney general is suing the operator of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, accusing the for-profit company of violating the state’s minimum-wage laws by asking immigrant detainees to work for $1 a day or less.

The 1,575-bed detention center, located on the Tacoma Tideflats, houses civil detainees who are awaiting immigration hearings or deportation.

In announcing the lawsuit Wednesday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said The GEO Group, which runs the facility, has been failing to pay detainees the minimum wage, “making millions of dollars by drastically underpaying its workers.”

In an emailed statement, GEO said it “strongly refutes the baseless and meritless allegations made in this lawsuit.”

Ferguson said detainees perform virtually all of the non-security work at the detention center, including cleaning, painting and other building maintenance.

Sometimes detainees work for $1 per day; other times, they aren’t compensated at all, but given snacks or food in exchange for their work, he said.

Such violations have been going on since at least 2005, the state’s lawsuit alleges.

“Essentially, they unjustly, illegally made millions and millions of dollars,” Ferguson said. “They profited from the illegal actions exploiting workers.”

Washington state’s current minimum wage is $11 per hour.

The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, asks that the company be required to comply with state minimum-wage laws. It also asks the company to give up profits it made by underpaying employees in past years. Ferguson estimated that sum would run into the millions of dollars.

The company, which Ferguson said is the second-largest private prison provider in the country, has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In its statement, The GEO Group said its volunteer work program meets standards set by the federal government. Neither the federal government or ICE are a defendant in the lawsuit.

“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,” the statement said.

Ferguson said the U.S. government’s contract with GEO requires it to follow state laws, such as Washington’s minimum-wage law.

Because the detainees at the Northwest Detention Center are facing civil immigration proceedings, they can’t be asked to work for below the minimum wage, Ferguson said.

While exceptions to the minimum-wage law are made for inmates in government-run jails and prisons, the same exception doesn’t apply to the detainees at the civil, immigration facility, he said.

The GEO Group has come under fire before for its alleged treatment of detainees. Earlier this year, hundreds of detainees at the Tacoma facility participated in a hunger strike to protest conditions there.

Additionally, a separate class-action lawsuit alleges the company forced thousands of immigrant detainees at a facility in Colorado to work for $1 a day, while threatening them with solitary confinement if they refused.

That federal lawsuit, which focuses on conditions at the Aurora Detention Center, accuses GEO of violating laws intended to combat slavery and forced labor.

Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said his group strongly supports Ferguson’s lawsuit and has “long been troubled by the conditions” at the Northwest Detention Center.

He said it is important to remember that the people detained at the facility are mostly people who have been living in Washington for years, or who have sought asylum from their home countries.

“We’re talking about people who get detained after being residents of Washington state for sometimes decades, people who have long ties to the community, who have families here,” Barón said.

Barón said while it is sad that the legal action is necessary, he’s glad to see it happen.

“We’re proud our state is stepping up to make sure the rights of all people in our state are protected,” he said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1