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Strategic Lessons from Abolitionist Labor Struggle In Immigration Detention


Lisa Knox is the Legal Director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice.

Hamid Yazdan Panah is an immigration attorney and the Advocacy Director for Immigrant Defense Advocates.

Serafin Andrade Lopez is an organizer who was detained in ICE custody for nineteen months. He is working towards a degree in Political Science and Sociology.

This post continues our symposium on carceral labor with Inquest.

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Since last summer, immigrants detained in California’s Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and Golden State Annex detention centers have been on strike. Forced to labor by their jailers, they are protesting the meager pay they receive—a dollar a day—and the terrible conditions under which they work and live. Their strike has been amplified by a number of other forms of direct action, including hunger strikes, coordinated public complaints, and strategic litigation.

As an abolitionist organizer recently freed from ICE detention in California, and two attorneys devoted to supporting immigrant liberation struggles, we have directly participated in and assisted with these efforts. As abolitionists, our ultimate goal is to end immigration detention and the carceral state. However, such struggles for basic rights, political visibility, and human dignity are important steps on the path toward abolition.

In what follows we discuss, first, how detained workers in Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex have fought against their exploitation and demanded their release. We then turn to exploring how legal advocates have utilized the law to support these campaigns, in part by raising the costs of doing business for private detention operators. The success of this partnership between detained workers and legal advocates offers a valuable model for how solidarity and empowerment can blaze a path toward abolition.

The Prison–Industrial Complex and Immigration Detention

Nationwide 79 percent of detained immigrants are caged in private, for-profit detention facilities. In California that number is 100 percent. GEO Group, Inc., one of the largest operators of private prisons and detention centers nationally, operates four of California’s seven immigration detention centers, including Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex. In 2020 28 percent of GEO’s total revenue ($662 million) came from ICE detention contracts. In California GEO’s current detention contracts are worth nearly $4 billon.

The Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause, which allows forced labor in prison, does not apply to people in immigration detention because immigration detention is not considered punishment for a crime. Immigration detention is legally considered civil and therefore nonpunitive, even though detained people are often held in the same conditions as those in criminal detention. Indeed, GEO Group treats these detained workers in basically the same way that it treats those in its prisons—that is, as slaves whose forced labor is essential to the facilities’ functioning. In response, people detained in these facilities have organized explicitly as workers, speaking out against their exploitation for corporate profits. Their organizing for basic wages—and recognition of their rights as employees—is part of a larger struggle for visibility, solidarity, and ultimately liberation.

For those detained in Mesa Verde and the Golden State Annex, their fight for visibility has in part involved making the public aware that they are housed in filthy, overcrowded dorms that are breeding grounds for communicable disease outbreaks. They are exposed to toxic chemicals and mold. When they become sick, they receive inadequate and sometimes dangerous medical care. To maximize profits, they are fed cheap, unhealthy, inedible, or spoiled food. To supplement their meager meals, they are forced to pay exorbitant commissary prices for food and hygiene products that are sometimes expired or spoiled.

ICE knows that these conditions violate the law and ICE’s own Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). But under little pressure from the public, it does nothing to rein in GEO Group. The problem is not unique to California, either. The Office of the Inspector General, an independent oversight agency, has called out private prison companies in general for misuse of solitary confinement and significant “health and safety risks,” including medical care so inadequate that detained people wait months for urgent medical appointments. Yet ICE continues to pay billions to these companies to operate facilities.

Through the so-called Voluntary Work Program, prison corporations increase profits by paying detained workers low wages to do essential labor, such as cleaning dormitories, performing maintenance work, and landscaping. Participation in the program is supposedly optional, but detained workers are regularly coerced into doing so: When they refuse to work—or engage in work stoppages—GEO has retaliated by placing individuals in solitary confinement, attempting to transfer them to out-of-state facilities, and issuing write-ups that result in losses of privileges.

Such retaliations helped set the stage for the strike, making it easier for inside organizers to shift detained workers’ perspectives on the work program. Detained workers went from being glad they were getting a dollar a day to understanding their underpayment for essential work as a form of oppression. Further, organizers helped detained workers understand their exploitation by pointing out that many of them couldn’t get jobs on the outside because they don’t have a visa, yet in detention—when it benefits GEO Group—they are put to work. Over time, organizers helped detained workers arrive at a collective sensibility: They just exploit us, use us up, and spit us out.

From this consensus emerged a set of demands backed by a strike:

  1. That workers be paid the California minimum wage of $15 per hour;
  2. That they be treated with dignity and respect by the facility administration;
  3. That there be improvements made to the substandard conditions they are forced to live and work in, in direct violation of the PBNDS.

By striking, detained workers sent a message that they weren’t going to depend on GEO’s wages to survive, but instead would depend on each other. Support from outside advocates was an important part of their strategy. The carceral system thrives on dehumanizing and disempowering people. Detained workers felt more empowered to speak out, knowing that outside advocates were doing so as well and would support them if they faced retaliation. As we discuss more in the next section, for this reason legal resources have been an important part of the struggle.

Organizing for Liberation

Our legal system protects the interests of the powerful and upholds mass incarceration. Yet when used as part of a broader campaign led by impacted people, the law can be a powerful tool to support labor organizing in detention.

When assisting with abolitionist struggle, attorneys have to train themselves out of the reflex to take control. However, they also need to avoid overcompensating by going too far in the opposite direction, deferring agency and decision-making solely to impacted or detained individuals. Detained individuals are at an extreme disadvantage because of their confinement. Attorneys have institutional access, knowledge of legal processes and procedures, and time and resources to devote to advocacy. They would be remiss if they did not offer this to actively help in the shaping of strategy. This obligation carries with it the burden of engaging in critical self-reflection and striving for true partnerships with impacted individuals, to arrive at a solidarity that builds on the strengths, abilities, and privileges of all parties.

We have been fortunate to participate in a number of successful cooperative efforts, including the following two examples.

(1) Wage-and-hour lawsuits

This strategy was pioneered by detained workers at a GEO-run facility in Tacoma, Washington, who successfully argued that they are entitled to minimum wage under state law and won $17 million in back pay. Detained workers in GEO-run facilities in Adelanto, California, and Aurora, Colorado, have filed similar lawsuits and are fighting for recognition of their rights as workers.

When detained people at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex started their labor strike, advocates connected them with detained organizers in Tacoma to learn more about their lawsuit. After learning from them about the pros and cons of a lawsuit, and talking with lawyers to better understand how a lawsuit might play out, detained workers decided to file suit against GEO Group in federal court. That lawsuit, Hernandez Gomez v. GEO Group, argues that, under California law, detained workers are employees entitled to minimum wage, and also alleges that GEO’s coercion and retaliation against strikers constitute labor trafficking. In the Adelanto lawsuit, workers have already won a favorable preliminary decision from a district court. The court found that GEO’s control over detained workers’ work conditions means that detained workers are employees under California law, and that GEO therefore violated California minimum wage law by paying detained workers a dollar a day.

In the short term, media coverage generated by the lawsuit has increased visibility for the strike. In the long term, a decision in favor of the strikers would affirm that they are employees of GEO, entitled to the same protections, rights, and wage requirements as any other employee in California. Given that GEO Group operates three detention centers in California that utilize the Voluntary Work Program, such a holding would disrupt the profits that keep GEO in the detention business. Finally, by fighting for their recognition as workers, detained workers are aligning their fight with the broader fight against labor exploitation

(2) Policy Campaigns

Detained individuals in California have collaborated extensively with advocates to develop policy campaigns that have tangible impacts on their lives. AB 3228 and AB 2632 are examples of legislation that were crafted in collaboration with detained individuals.

AB 3228, which was passed in 2020, requires all private detention facilities to abide by the standards of care in their contracts, and allows individuals to sue private operators for violations of these standards. In other words, it gives ICE’s own standards the effect of California law and allows for private liability when these standards are violated. The law’s value is that it cuts through what are often difficult issues related to accountability when someone is harmed in federal custody by a private operator, and allows for individuals to pursue claims in state court. In practice it bifurcates the interests of ICE and private operators, while providing individuals in detention with a roadmap for standards they are entitled to. It also empowers detained individuals and advocates to collaborate in going after private operators. The law is still fairly new, but we remain optimistic that it could eventually lead to substantive decisions in favor of those in immigration detention.

AB 2632, better known as the Mandela Act, arose in part as an answer to the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes launched in California prisons to challenge the use of solitary confinement by the California Department of Corrections. At its peak more than 30,000 incarcerated individuals put their lives on the line to gain political visibility through their organizing, making clear that the fight to end solitary confinement is central to abolitionist work. Solitary confinement not only isolates individuals from their communities. It destroys people, mind, body, and soul. Ending solitary is a strategic prerequisite to sustainable organizing and advocacy within any carceral facility. The Mandela Act is currently before the California legislature.

Lessons Learned Toward Liberation

We have learned from our experiences that it is crucial to address the material conditions in which workers are detained, and the repression they inevitably face for organizing. Detained immigrants routinely put their bodies on the line—including through hunger strikes—to push for immediate improvements to their conditions. In turn, outside advocates must do all we can to make detention less perilous—for example, by advocating for the Mandela Act to end the use of solitary confinement as a weapon to silence protest in detention.

By sharing our experiences in the fight at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, we hope to provide a roadmap for how advocates and organizers can work together to fight incarcerated worker exploitation. The provision of individualized legal representation will never abolish the system of mass human caging. But we believe that, by working closely with detained organizers to craft legal strategies driven by organizers’ goals, legal advocates have a critical role to play in abolishing the carceral state.