Unjust Enrichment: The struggle for fair wages and an end to all immigrant cages

Page 1


This zine is dedicated to all of our loved ones who are currently resisting behind bars Este zine está dedicado a todos nuestros seres queridos que actualmente están en la lucha tras las rejas de sistemas capitalistas.


This is the story of two lawsuits: the State of Washington and a class action lawsuit of detained workers against GEO Group at the Northwest Detention Center.


Last updated June 20, 2021

Lots of people think that the threat of detention and deportation is how we get people to accept shitty wages and exploitation. Most of them don’t consider that this happens even as people are fighting their deportation. The worse your conditions of detention are, the more likely you are to sign off on your own deportation. People released from detention are five times more likely to access legal help. More importantly, they can access their own documentation -- of citizenship, family relationships, work history, fear of retaliation if deported, etc. We don’t like to admit it, but people live in detention centers -- that’s why they need living wages there. People without family support to pay for commissary must work to make phone calls, eat food, buy hygiene products, and write letters to get documentation to fight their case. Money buys hope.


The demand for better wages came from people detained themselves. In 2014, hunger strikers at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) identified $1 a day wages as limiting their ability to support themselves, and asked for community support in their demands for a living wage. There are class action lawsuits against private detention centers across the nation, but the Washington state case is the best option we have to force big corporations to admit to the ways they force people to work to subsidize their profits.

El pueblo unido jamas será vencido

While some people think the “War on Terror” is why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains so many people, immigrant detention has been rising steadily - under Democratic and Republican leadership -- since the 1980s. During this time, the US immigration system began to require mandatory detention for immigrants with criminal charges. Today, ICE and Border Patrol are the largest federal police force with a budget bigger than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Some people have pathways to citizenship -education, opportunities, and legal assistance -and other people are pushed out of schools, opportunities and do not have money for a lawyer. People who are racialized Black and/or don’t speak English are less likely to have access to citizenship pathways. People who are gendered male and/or racialized Black are more vulnerable to detention and deportation. This is because of the prison-to-detention pipeline.

THE CARCERAL SYSTEM Most people in immigrant detention are not picked up at the US-Mexico border -- they are picked up by police, jails, and prisons -- over








people from immigrating to the US, the function of ICE is to separate families and punish people who have been living here













of of

crimes a




getting rear-ended on the freeway and calling 911). This is why immigrants, and their community members, don’t call 911 if they need help.

ICE uses racial profiling to decide who is a citizen, and who might be deportable.

GEO Group is one of a few private companies that makes money from killing and caging people -- as a corporation, GEO has absorbed both Wackenhut security and CSC (the company that built the Northwest Detention Center). As business slowed down from private prisons, private companies wrote and advocated for laws to lock up immigrants so they could keep making money. As abolitionists, we know that if you build a cage, you will fill it. What GEO Group and other companies did was give US government agencies a reason to keep building cages and a way to sign contracts to keep filling them. Even if we ban private detention centers tomorrow, we have to wait for the contract to run out. Private companies say that ICE is responsible for immigrant human rights, and ICE says that private companies are responsible. Since most people detained by ICE are held in for-profit cages, this accountability merry-go-round means that nobody takes responsibility for detention conditions.

GEO is a "Real Estate Investment Trust" Specializing in Detention Management Services

Movement lawyers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of detained workers at private detention centers across the US – including cases in New Mexico and Colorado. If they win the class action lawsuit, GEO will have to pay back wages it stole from detained workers – anybody who is part of the “class” because they are on the payroll from working while detained.

The case finally went to trial in 2021, right after Washington state passed a law that would shut down the NWDC.

In 2017, Washington State’s Attorney General also filed a lawsuit against GEO Group. To date, Washington is the only state to take a private corporation to court for failing to follow state laws in immigrant detention. Workers and Washington state are suing GEO Group for 1) failing to pay state minimum wage and 2) unjust enrichment, meaning that people couldn’t say ‘no’ to labor exploitations. It argues that GEO didn't just harm people in detention, but also their families and everybody who lost out on fair wages when GEO broke state law.

MINIMUM WAGE First, the State argued that GEO Group is not exempt from paying state minimum wage. Instead of $1 per day, workers should earn $13 per hour. 1) GEO said that it doesn’t have to pay minimum wage because it has to keep people from being “idle” and doing evil things. But workers testified that they have a lot to do: work on their legal cases, talk to their families, or even just read a book. They work to buy phone time or food at overpriced commissary prices.

GEO asked ICE to take over the lawsuit. ICE said no.

2) GEO said that the “Voluntary Work Program” means that people are volunteers, donating their time. But it’s not legal for private companies to accept volunteer work without compensation in Washington state. 3) GEO said workers are just doing “chores,” cleaning up after themselves. Detained workers testified that cleaning toilets for hundreds of guys was a lot more than the chores they had to do at home. When GEO can’t get people detained to work for $1 a day, what does it do? In Texas, GEO bargained with workers and pays them $2 per day. In Washington, when there were viral outbreaks and people refused to work, GEO brought in outside workers at more than $20 per hour. GEO can pay more, but they would rather make (even more) money from prison labor.

GEO asked ICE to testify in court. ICE was a no-show.

UNJUST ENRICHMENT Second, Washington state argued that GEO Group benefited from unjust enrichment. What does unjust enrichment mean? Capitalism claims that there is a willingbuyer willing-seller relationship. I sell you my labor working as a cook, you buy my labor to run the detention center. Unjust enrichment is what happens when the person who is selling their labor can’t negotiate -how many hours to work, for how much money, what jobs. In the NWDC, this meant that people who refused to work for $1 a day were written up and sent to solitary confinement as punishment.

In trial, the Kitchen Manager said that GEO only spends $.97 per meal for people in detention. When asked why detainees work in the kitchen, he said: “They seem to be pretty hungry. One of the reasons why they work in the kitchen is because you can eat as much as you want from the leftovers... and then they would put food in the bag in their boots and carry it out.”

If they can't get food from the kitchen, prisoners have to use their scrip to buy food from the company store at high prices.

Now, what? In June 2021, the jury convened in Tacoma to hear both the class action and the State's case against GEO Group asked the judge to declare a mistrial, and he did. After years of preparation and over two weeks in trial, the jury said it could not agree on even the most basic question – Are people in detention employees when they work for their jailers? Judge Bryan said, "nobody's happy, but nobody lost." ~ As of June 18, 2021, the State intends to try the case in front of a new jury. ~


Hunger strikers like Cipriano, who wrote the poem above, demanded fair wages, better food and an end to all detention. By continuing this legal fight, we honor their demands.

Will this lawsuit really do anything to affect immigrant detention? This is an abolitionist reform, one that calls on people to acknowledge the harms of immigrant detention and its real costs. It calls on corporations like GEO Group to pay backwages, acknowledging the humanity and the labor of people already deported. In challenging the profit model of detention, the lawsuit challenges the morality of detention. An “unjust enrichment” lawsuit is how we get corporations and ICE on the record about the ways in which their own policies, practices and manuals teach their employees to dehumanize people every day. At its heart, the lawsuit clings to a belief that if people in the USA are forced to confront the ways they subsidize state violence that many of them will say they have had enough. No one law, no one site fight, no one lawsuit is enough. The monster that is the prisondetention-deportation pipeline doesn’t need more lawyers, it needs fewer laws that punish people.

TEAR DOWN DEATH-MAKING INSTITUTIONS In Washington State alone, ours is a tree with deep roots and many branches, including: lawsuits to recognize that detained immigrants are workers who should be paid minimum wage; a bill passed to end private, forprofit immigrant detention centers; a campaign to call on Governor Inslee to end the prison-todetention pipeline by ceasing collaboration with ICE; and so much more!

I believe that we will win!







Let's turn the fight against for-profit detention into the fight for abolition!

Is a non-profit cage a kinder, gentler cage? Most people would think so, until they learn that the horrific images of kids in make-shift camps in Texas were run by non-profit organizations. GEO Group’s detention centers are not humane; federal and state prisons are not humane; and non-profit camps are not humane. No matter who runs it, a cage is a cage. Nobody should be forced to earn $1 a day for their work. The trial revealed that people don't really have a choice -- they have to work. As GEO Group and other corporations want you to know, they don’t make the rules, the government does. Abolishing private prisons means abolishing ICE. And to keep state and local jails from being repurposed from immigrant detention to locking up other people, we need to abolish cages. Cages don’t keep us safe, we keep us safe.

As we move in abolitionist organizing, there are crucial questions we can ask ourselves about how to align our energies: 1) Does the reform make life better for people who are directly impacted? In other words, does it get people more resources, help them find relief from oppression and/or access liberation? 2) Does it leave out a particularly oppressed group? This is especially a concern if the most marginalized group is the one that is least likely to garner public sympathy, so the campaign might lose steam and leave them out of the reform. 3) Does it legitimize the carceral system? This is particularly a concern if it lets people say the problem isn’t the institution, it’s the “bad apples” who don’t follow the rules without asking why some people have to follow all of the rules all of the time (and other people none of the rules, none of the time). 4) Does it build collective power, mobilizing the most affected for ongoing struggle? ~ adapted from Dean Spade, Mariame Kaba and other stars in the constellation ~

Join the struggle! To learn more about organizations dedicated to ending immigrant detention and deportations in Washington state -- and beyond -check out: Detention Watch Network www.detentionwatchnetwork.org Liberation Not Deportation WA www.ICEoutofWA.com Resistencia Northwest www.laresistencianw.org

Made possible through a grant from the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, University of Washington. The views expressed in this zine are solely those of the authors.

Written by Megan Ybarra Illustrated & Designed by Wesley Carrasco; images on page 15 and 17 by Murphy Mitchel for "A Hunger Strikers Handbook" With gratitude and respect to Chuck for risking retaliation in taking up the claim.