The New York Times reported this Sunday that one national employer relied on the labor of more than 60,000 immigrant workers last year to cook, clean, and do laundry while living behind locked doors and barbed wire. The employer paid them only $1 per day – or in some cases, compensated them with nothing more than soda and candy bars. In one facility, people who organized a work stoppage and hunger strike were thrown into solitary confinement.
Yet when asked to comment, federal authorities claimed that this is all completely legal and none of the workers were being coerced.
Because the employer is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its subcontactors, and the workers are administrative detainees in the agency’s sprawling network of approximately 250 immigration detention facilities, performing the labor that keeps these detention facilities running. Thus, while the federal government cracks down on undocumented immigrants and prohibits them from working elsewhere, it has, in essence, become the largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the nation.
Unfortunately, this type of (literally) captive labor force is nothing new. After the end of the Civil War, former slaves who left their old plantations were often arrested for minor or trumped-up legal violations – particularly vagrancy, a crime especially easy for African-American men to be convicted of when traveling to unfamiliar towns to seek new jobs. Southern sheriffs then “leased” the newly-convicted men to private companies, which forced them to work without compensation in mines, plantations, and factories.
That “convict lease” system was the historical antecedent to the modern private prison industry – and to the ICE detainee labor program profiled in the Times this week, which helps make immigration detention profitable for the private prison companies that run most detention facilities, like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. And like the newly freed slaves arrested for seeking better jobs after the Civil War, many of the more than 400,000 people swept into immigration detention each year are kept locked up for bad reasons and denied due process.
The fact that the federal government is locking up so many people, putting them to work in coercive conditions, and robbing them of a fair wage for that work should outrage our sense of decency and fair play. And the fact that this has happened before in our history makes it inexcusable.