Detention Centers Are Exploiting Immigrant Labor

By Rabbi Joshua Lesser 8-22-2018
ICE detainees are seen at the Adelanto immigration detention center in Adelanto, Calif. April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

I am in a cramped waiting room overflowing with the family members of detained immigrants. There is no bathroom easily accessible nor any other amenity. Family members and other visitors, many of them children, wait for hours here at Stewart Immigration Detention Facility for the opportunity to spend the one hour they are permitted per week with their loved one. When a staff member finally ushers me back to meet with a detainee at this Georgia facility, I notice that his employee badge bears the slogan, “CoreCivic: Pride in All We Do!”

Members of the Bet Haverim synagogue and I traveled from Atlanta to Stewart to deepen our understanding of the immigration detention system — which under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is rapidly expanding. Detainees told us that they are routinely denied their due process rights and frequently endure inhumane conditions in isolated facilities under little oversight from the federal government. They also told us how they serve time in solitary confinement for minor infractions, are denied urgent medical care, and have had their legal proceedings inexplicably delayed.

While Stewart is only a few hours away from Bet Haverim, it feels even more remote. This former medium-security prison facility, which houses 1,900 men, is in one of our nation’s poorest counties. With no legal representation, the chances of these detainees avoiding deportation are nearly zero. The facility is over two hours from the nearest airport, and with no motels, grocery stores, or pharmacies nearby, family visits are costly and logistically complicated.

If there is any “pride in all we do” to be found, it is with the people at the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center representing detained immigrants, and El Refugio, the ministry of hospitality and visitation that arranged and prepared us for our visits with detained immigrants.

One person I met with told me that without the help from the lawyers of SIFI, he might not be alive. When I asked him if he had been abused by the guards, he became silent and his eyes darted away nervously. As I changed topics, he stopped me to say, “Thanks for asking; it is helpful to know that there are Americans who care.”

Many of my congregants and I met with detainees who spoke about being paid $4 a day to work in Stewart’s kitchen, often equaling 50 cents per hour, and just $2 a day for cleaning the bathrooms. Many noted that they had little choice in the matter; there was no other way to earn money to call their families or to buy necessities from the commissary.

When I researched CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), the for-profit company that is contracted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to run the facility, I discovered that it is one of the largest private prison corporation in the United States. Its 2017 net income topped $178 million and it is vying for more contracts as the Trump administration dramatically increases detention of immigrants and their children.

In April, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against CoreCivic contesting inmate labor practices at Stewart, stating that it violates human trafficking laws and coerces detained immigrants to work for substandard wages. Furthermore, according to the lawsuit, guards often threaten to punish detainees if they refuse to work.

Before our visit, I had prepared my congregants for witnessing the hardships and distress of individuals stuck in a broken immigration system, but I hadn’t realized we would encounter what is essentially modern-day slavery. My heart ached over the Kafka-esque system that provides little clarity, human touch, or direction to those stuck inside. As our visit was ending, the person I visited asked me for a blessing. I uttered “May God bless and protect you.”

Then the pounding on the visiting room door came, and I quickly finished the blessing with “May God’s Countenance bring light and show you peace.” As I left, the prayer that remained on my heart was “May we become a country that can make this prayer reality.” Until then, it is hard to have pride in all we do.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser is the spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim and an active member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which advocates for more just immigration policies.

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