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Lawsuit Over Immigrant Detainee Wages Is Now Class Action

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Detainees seen during a June 2017 media tour of the Northwest Detention Center

A legal challenge to $1 dollar per day wages paid to immigrants held at a Tacoma detention center can proceed as a class action lawsuit, a federal judge has ruled.

The lawsuit, filed by a detainee almost one year ago, argues the pay for detainees violates Washington state's minimum wage law. 

The Aug. 6 decision by Judge Robert J. Bryan means any detainee who participated in the detention center's voluntary work program since September 2014 could be reimbursed for lost wages, if they're awarded.

The Northwest Detention Center is run by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

"As we have consistently stated, we intend to defend our company against these claims," a GEO Group spokesman said in a written statement.

"The wage rates associated with this federally mandated program are stipulated under long-established guidelines set by the United States Congress," the spokesman said. "As a service provider to the federal government, GEO is required to abide by these federally mandated standards and congressionally established guidelines.”

ICE's detention standards lists $1 per day as the minimum that can be paid to detainees participating in a work program.

Under the GEO Group's work program, detainees are paid $1 per day for tasks that include cooking and serving food, cleaning, laundry, and maintenence.

Washington state's minimum wage is $11.50 per hour.

At the Northwest Detention Center, which holds a maximum of 1,575 people, hundreds of detainees at a time participate in the program, according to records of inspections of the facility. 

The lawsuit claims the GEO Group sometimes does not pay detainee workers at all, but instead compensates them in "more and better food than the facility's standard fare."

"Rather than hire from the local workforce, GEO relies upon captive detainee workers to clean, maintain, and operate" the detention center, the lawsuit claims.

Two men replaced the original plaintiff in the lawsuit in June. Ugochukwu Goodluck Nwauzor, a Nigerian citizen living in Kent, was held at the detention center from February 2016 until he received asylum in January 2017. Fernando Aguirre-Urbina, a Mexican citizen, has been detained since around September 2012.  

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson also challenged the $1 per day wage last year in a similar lawsuit, which is also proceeding in federal court. 


Will James reports on ideology, covering how information spreads, how beliefs form, and how those beliefs interact with the real world.