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Immigration detainees facing unfair pressure to work for free

Would you do the work of a janitor for free? What about for a dollar a day? That is the situation in which many Texas immigration detainees find themselves, as they are put to work to perform manual tasks that are essential to keeping detention centers running. In fact, detainees often do most of the work inside these facilities, including cleaning the bathrooms, doing laundry and even maintaining inventory in the commissary.

The program is facing criticism from the outside and resistance from detainees, as they are effectively being treated as convicted criminals.

Several people being held in immigration detention went on a work strike in Houston, leaving guards scrambling to fill vacancies in the kitchen. Even though authorities say that the work program is voluntary, stories are surfacing about guards who put detainees in solitary confinement for refusing to participate. Immigrant activists say they do not believe that the program is even legal; instead, it appears that many of the companies that run the private detention centers are breaking the rules to create a self-contained labor force.

Many people may not see the problem with having the detainees do the work. The critical distinction between these people and criminals, however, is that civil detainees are simply being held as they await hearings about their legal statuses. About half of those people will go on to stay in the United States for a variety of reasons.

In other words, many of the people are in the country legally. One man said he was held for 19 months, making $1 per day; he had been earning $15 per hour as a chef in the outside world. He was held for more than a year and a half because of a clerical error that caused his visa to be revoked. It is important to recognize that immigration detention is not prison, and we should not treat these people as though they have committed a crime by forcing them into unpaid labor.

Source: The New York Times, "Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor" Ian Urbina, May. 24, 2014

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