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Immigrant detainee class action over conditions moves forward

Nine immigrants being held at an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility have filed a class action against the private company that runs it. Now, a federal appellate court has affirmed that the class action will represent some 60,000 others who have been held at the facility over the past 10 years.

In its 37-page ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit took no position on the underlying allegations. It affirmed a trial court ruling that the class action could move forward on behalf of all the detainees.

The lawsuit was brought against the GEO Group, Inc., which contracts with the federal government to run an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado. The lawsuit claims that immigrants held there are subjected to forced and highly discounted labor in violation of Colorado law and of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. That act prohibits forced labor.

According to the detainees, the facility has a mandatory housing unit sanitation policy which requires the inmates to perform cleaning tasks without pay "under the threat of solitary confinement as punishment for any refusal to work."

Additionally, a separate voluntary work program pays detainees only $1 a day to paint, serve food, cut hair, and clean clothes and bathrooms.

A federal trial court had ruled that the class action could proceed. GEO Group appealed, but the 10th Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision. Now, the case will head back to the lower court for a trial on the merits of the case.

It's important to keep in mind that immigrant detainees are not in prison for criminal convictions. In the case of those duly convicted of crimes, facilities can often pay less than the minimum wage for labor. Some immigrant detainees have been convicted of crimes in the past, but their sentences were served in jails and prisons, not immigration facilities. Other detainees have no criminal records at all.

This lawsuit only pertains to a single facility in another state. The extent to which these policies affect other ICE facilities is unclear. CEO Group operates 71 correction and detention facilities, along with 133 other types of facilities nationwide. The company did not respond to NPR emails seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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