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In this Feb. 9, 2017, photo provided U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents at a home in Atlanta, during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens. The Homeland Security Department said Feb. 13, that 680 people were arrested in roundups last week targeting immigrants living illegally in the United States. (Bryan Cox/ICE via AP)

Thousands of undocumented immigrants said they were forced to work for $1 a day or less


A lawsuit claiming immigrants detained by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement were forced into slave labor, originally filed in 2014, reached class-action status earlier this week.

That means it could involve up to 60,000 immigrants who were detained, The Washington Post reports.

It's the first class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor to be allowed to move forward legally. The prison company in question is Denver Contract Detention Facility.

The lawsuit claims tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants were forced to work for $1 a day, or nothing at all, which violates anti-slavery laws. Those that refused to work while detained at the facility were threatened with solitary confinement. The lawsuit argues this violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The lawsuit was filed against the prison firm Geo Group, which worked under a contract with ICE. It first sought $5 million in damages, a number which will likely grow significantly now that it's a class-action lawsuit. 

Whether you're calling it forced labor or slavery ... you're being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force.
Andrew Free, attorney

Geo Group is also under fire for allegedly breaking Colorado's minimum wage law. The state mandates a $9/hour minimum wage. 

The political context

President Trump has pledged to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. He also rolled back an Obama-era executive order that called for the phasing out of private prisons.

The stocks of Geo Group and its competitor CoreCivic spiked since Trump's election. The companies donated $500,000 to Trump's campaign combined, USA Today reports.

Geo Group denied the lawsuit's allegations and argued that the $1/day wages did not break any laws.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, March 2, 2017. Sessions said he will recuse himself from a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in rescinding the Obama order, said phasing out private prisons "impaired the [Bureau of Prison]'s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system." 

Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the work program was a volunteer program, and the minimum wage laws didn't apply to detained immigrants. 

The company also argued the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was not applicable to the case, since the company did not traffic people "with the purpose of putting them to work."

Some lawyers took issue with that classification. 

"Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University's Deportation Research Clinic said. She argued that prison labor had no purpose for immigrant detainees who weren't convicted of crimes.

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