2021 | Megan Ybarra and Wesley Carrasco

Ybarra and Carrasco’s project examines how prolonged private immigrant detention affects labor rights throughout mixed-status immigrant communities like Tacoma and Seattle. In 2017, Washington State Attorney General Ferguson announced a lawsuit against GEO Group, a private, for-profit company that runs the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA. The outcome of the lawsuit will have significant repercussions on whether private companies can use federal contracts to bypass state laws that protect worker rights. The State seeks compensation for residents of the entire region who were denied job opportunities when GEO Group forced people in detention to work instead of hiring from the community, and the class action component seeks direct compensation for anyone detained who worked for $1 per day while entitled to state minimum wage (even if they have been deported). The researchers traced this lawsuit, the first federal trial in Washington state, to learn how local, state, and private actors understand labor rights of immigrants in private detention facilities. 

The initial federal trial ended in a mistrial, and both the State of WA and the class action lawsuit are scheduled for jury trial again in October 2021. Trial proceedings and documentation so far support tentative findings as follow:

First, the labor of immigrants in private detention facilities is part of a broader prison industrial complex that sprawls across the criminal punishment system and the administrative immigration system. While immigrant detention is technically not under the purview of the criminal justice system, people experience detention as punishment. Decreasing prison sentences have not resulted in lower populations in cages to the extent that they could because of the massive increase in immigrant detention through contracted for-profit facilities and local jails. 

Second, GEO Group profits from what state law recognizes as “unjust enrichment,” which is one of the few checks that exist on labor exploitation. It does not give people enough clothes to wear or food to eat, and they have to pay to make phone calls, send emails, or listen to music—so they work. People who say “no” or organize other workers get written up for inciting a riot and sent to solitary confinement—so they work. This is the meaning of unjust enrichment: forcing people to work for food and clothes reveals that there is no safe and humane immigrant detention.

Third, immigrant detention is residential. People experience immigrant detention as punitive—they serve their time, and then they are transferred to another system where they serve their time. While Washington state agencies tacitly assume that people are deported after their transfer to immigrant detention, those immigrants who spend the longest time in detention centers are there because they are fighting to remain in the US with their families. Their labor at $1 per day places significant financial strain on poor racialized families in Washington state (both immigrants and citizens). Further, immigrant detention centers offer no programming that enhances immigrants’ education and/or employability, such as English classes, GED classes, or arts and crafts.

These tentative findings demonstrate the need to understand the role of immigrant detention in Washington state labor dynamics—not only as a threat that disciplines workers, but also as an everyday phenomenon that shapes families’ ability to engage in long-term education and labor markets.

The researchers compiled their findings into a zine. Read it here.