A sign at the side of a rural highway reads "Caution" families of undocumented workers may appear in road.

Families of undocumented workers arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are frequently housed in for-profit detention centers and face additional economic exploitation from the administration while incarcerated. Photo: James Steidl | Shutterstock.

Family detention centers detain immigrant families of which one or more individuals in those families are suspected of unauthorized arrival into the U.S. or visa violations in the country. A recent report from the L.A. Times indicates that such detained people may have jobs at these facilities but are paid wages of just $1 to $3 a day.

The story initially follows a detained immigrant named Delmi Cruz in a detention center in Dilley, Texas after crossing the Mexico/U.S. border in September with her son. She took a job cleaning bathrooms and hallways in the center, which, in its commissary, offers a bag of potato chips for $4 and a bottle of water for $2. In short, the wages do not match the commissary’s inflated prices and do not meet federal minimum wage standards set for all American citizens.

Geo Group runs this particular facility. It manages several for-profit prisons in the U.S. and is the country’s second-largest prison company. Its opponents allege that paying workers such a low rate is unfair and close to slavery. Geo Group, however, asserts that jobs are voluntary and that it operates within federal laws.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says it inspects such agencies on a “routine and unannounced basis” and that facilities receive average scores of more than 99 percent. Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for ICE, commented, “the program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities.”

Geo Group apparently backs that sentiment with a statement from its spokesman Pablo Paez, who said: “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government.”

This leads to one other large criticism that opponents have to the system. They say the facilities will remove detainees from their jobs if they speak out against the institution. Cruz reportedly went on hunger strikes and work stoppages with several other inmates and is now suing Geo Group for the loss of her job following those events.

The suit is similar to one in Aurora, CO in which attorney Andrew Free is representing a group of detainees, against Geo Group. The detainees said that Geo Group threatened to punish them if they did not work. As Paez noted, the program is supposed to be voluntary. Geo Group has reportedly refuted the allegations that it was involved in any wrongdoing with regard to that legal challenge.

Those lawsuits appear to be ongoing. In the meantime, any fight for higher wages may see little momentum against federal legislation passed in 1950’s that allows for such low pay rates. The last time wages were considered on a national stage was in 1990 when an appellate court determined that alien detainees did not meet the category of being federal employees and therefore were not subject to minimum wage laws.