In a lawsuit alleging systematic wage theft, thousands of detained immigrants held at GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) were certified as a class by a federal judge.
The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington rejected an argument by the private prison contractor that the immigrants are “unemployable” by GEO—because they “lack work authorization”—and so they cannot claim the contractor has violated the state’s minimum wage law.
Judge Robert Bryan determined the detained immigrants have an “employment relationship with GEO.” They all participate in a volunteer work program at NWDC and allege the same “injury,” which is that they are only paid $1 per day for work, “an amount not commensurate” with the law.
Previously, GEO Group attempted to argue the corporation would face federal sanctions for employing undocumented immigrants. Bryan rejected this argument in December 2017.
Ugochuk Goodluck Nwauzor and Fernando Aguirre-Urbina were appointed to represent the class of plaintiffs.
Nwauzor lives in Kent, Washington, and was detained at NWDC from February 2016 to January 2017. He is a Nigerian citizen, who was granted asylum the same month he was released.
Aguirre-Urbina is still in detention. He is a Mexican citizen, who has been confined there since September 2012.
GEO Group has owned and operated the NWDC, which has 1,500 beds for immigrants, since 2005. The contractor relies on detainees to “clean, maintain, and operate NWDC,” according to the complaint.
Sometimes detained immigrants are not even given $1 per day. They may instead be compensated with more or “better” food.
In February 2018, NWDC was the site of a hunger strike and work stoppage by over 100 detainees.
According to the grassroots group, NWDC Resistance, the actions were in response to GEO Group’s failure to provide “edible nutritious food” and the use of solitary confinement, especially as a form of retaliation.
Those engaged in resistance claimed GEO guards “constantly search the beds and units of detained people without reason nor explanation.” Detainees demanded an end to the searches.
Washington state has also brought a lawsuit against GEO Group in the state’s superior court that alleges it is violating the state’s minimum wage laws.
The state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, declared, “A multi-billion dollar corporation is trying to get away with paying its workers $1 per day. That shouldn’t happen in America, and I will not tolerate it happening in Washington. For-profit companies cannot exploit Washington workers.”
The class action lawsuit in federal court will proceed, as the state of Washington’s suit moves through state court.
Multiple lawsuits have sought class certification to challenge GEO Group’s denial of wages. As Prison Legal News documented, “On February 9, 2018, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the certification of two classes of immigration detainees who were forced by GEO to labor without pay or to “volunteer” to work for $1 per day” in a case in Aurora, Colorado.