Asylum Seekers Forced to Work for $1/ Day while Waiting for Immigration Courts

Many readers here are likely familiar with the troubling use of prison labor in the United States. Somewhat less known is that not only people serving time in American prisons for crimes are forced to work for miniscule wages- this exploitation extends to asylum seekers as well.

               Approximately 48,000 people are currently held in immigration detention facilities. By and large these are not criminals- they are seeking asylum and or otherwise awaiting their turn to appear in immigration court. (For many their ‘crime’ is crossing into the U.S. illegally, but remember that entering the country without permission is not illegal if it’s for the purpose of seeking asylum.)

               Most of these detainees are held in privately run facilities which include a ‘Voluntary Work Program.’ ICE states that the purpose of this program is to give detainees the opportunity to earn money while confined, and also to improve morale, decrease idleness, and thereby reduce disciplinary incidents. Sounds like it makes sense- far better to get a job to earn money and learn skills rather than sit around all day while in confinement.

The Pay

But what about the pay? It’s set firmly at $1/ day. That’s right- not even $1/ hr, but $1 for a full 8 hour workday. And the beneficiaries of this ultra cheap labor are the for profit prisons that the government pays to house these detainees.

               Now one might suggest that if detainees volunteer to do this there shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe some of them just enjoy working instead of sitting around? But numerous incidents indicate that this program isn’t voluntary at all, and those who refuse to join are punished. A recent review by Seth Garfield in the Case Western Law Review found a detainee threatened with solitary confinement (the hole) if he didn’t work, and another placed in segregated housing because of refusal. Numerous similar accounts are outlined in various lawsuits against the program.

               Prison labor is legal according to the constitution, which under the 13th amendment specifically allows even slavery as punishment. But remember, immigration courts are civil rather than criminal. So how is it legal to pay detainees so little?

               Various lawsuits have recently demanded pay increases on the grounds that these arrangements violate state minimum wage laws. But ICE maintains that detainees are not employees and the $1/ day is not a salary but rather an allowance. Furthermore, the $1/ day rate was set by the U.S. Congress in a way that preempts state law. So courts have allowed this to continue.

               The irony here is horrific. Many of these detainees came here fleeing oppression in their home countries. Then when they enter the United States, the U.S. government puts them to work for $1/ day wages on behalf of American companies. If these same businesses would hire illegal immigrants out on the free market they would of course be in trouble, but getting these non-citizen detainees to work for nearly nothing is legally okay.

Simple Solution

Of course raising wages would make these facilities more expensive to run. A simple solution is available: Release the detainees with work permits, using ankle bracelets and other technology as necessary insure they return for court proceedings. Asylum seekers are among the poorest, most vulnerable people among us. Even though in many cases the United States is not obliged to offer them the shelter they seek, there’s no excuse for adding to the abuse and exploitation they’ve already suffered.

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