The following media release was shared with Latino Rebels on Wednesday afternoon:
NEW MEXICO —Three men who came to the United States seeking asylum were illegally paid subminimum wages, as little as $1 per day, as part of a “volunteer” work program run by the privately-owned and operated ICE detention facility where they were held, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today. These asylum-seekers are the first civil immigration detainees to bring federal wage theft claims against a for-profit detention center for work performed in detention. The suit accuses CoreCivic, the facility’s operator and second-largest private prison company in the country, of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act (NMMWA), and the common law doctrine of unjust enrichment.
The plaintiffs, who fled Cameroon in 2017 seeking political asylum, were immediately detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Texas border, then held at Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, pending hearings on their immigration status. None of the men was charged with a crime in the United States and all have since been granted asylum and permitted to remain in the country. The Cibola facility is owned and operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America.
Labor provided by the plaintiffs and their colleagues in detention is critical to facility operations: Detained immigrants prepare and serve meals, clean the facilities, perform nearly all maintenance and upkeep for the benefit of CoreCivic, run the laundry services, and operate the library and barber shop.
“Those seeking asylum in this country who have committed no crimes here, like the men who have brought this action, are entitled to be paid minimum wage for the labor they perform for others,” said Joseph M. Sellers, co-counsel to the plaintiffs and Partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC. “CoreCivic and the facility it operates at Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico violated federal and state law by paying these men and members of the class they represent as little as $1 per day, rather than at least minimum wage.”
Similar lawsuits have applied state wage and forced labor claims to these privately-held companies and others have alleged FLSA violations against government-run detention centers. Plaintiffs here claim this for-profit company that runs detention centers violates the FLSA by profiting from their labor and paying subminimum wages.
CoreCivic owns and operates detention and prison facilities around the country, frequently via contracts with local, state or federal government. In 2017, the company reported $1.84 billion in revenue, with 48 percent coming from contracts with federal agencies.
“These men fled torture and persecution in Cameroon, traveling through South and Central America to seek asylum in the United States,” said Rebekah Wolf, attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. “But, upon their arrival they were detained and locked up like prisoners at Cibola, previously a minimum-security prison, quite literally living in lock down, the same guards, guarding the same prison units, maximum capacity of 70 detainees in each unit, in the same cells, bunk beds, bathrooms, meal halls, and daily rec yard access as prisoners. The limited access they had to the outside world was if they had [U.S.] money for pay phones or an asylum attorney they had arranged for before being detained.”
“As a member of the persecuted Anglophone minority in Cameroon, I had no choice but to leave my home country,” said Nkemtoh Moses Awombang, a husband and father who came to America in June 2017 after being tortured for months by police. “I started to work at CoreCivic to make enough money to phone my wife, daughter, and orphans who my family cares for in Cameroon. Even though I worked hard, I was paid so little in the $1/day program and I did not feel that it was right. I came here seeking safety, but instead I’ve been taken advantage of.”
“The brave souls who come forward today fled unspeakable repression in their homes only to be met with economic exploitation in ours,” said R. Andrew Free, another attorney for the Plaintiffs. “It is well documented that CoreCivic has profited richly from the arrest and detention of vulnerable immigrants and asylum-seekers. Using free and nearly free labor of people confined in its facilities is critical to these profits.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Joseph M. Sellers, D. Michael Hancock, and Stacy N. Cammarano of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Robert S. Libman, Nancy Maldonado, Deanna Pihos, Matthew J. Owens, and Ben Blustein of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, P.C.; and R. Andrew Free of the Law Offices of R. Andrew Free.
About Cohen Milstein
Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is recognized as one of the premier law firms in the country handling major, complex plaintiff-side litigation. With more than 90 attorneys, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., New York, N.Y., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Philadelphia, Pa. and Raleigh, N.C. For additional information, visit www.cohenmilstein.com or call 1-202-408-4600.
About Miner, Barnhill & Galland
Miner, Barnhill & Galland is a nationally recognized public interest law firm, specializing in representing plaintiffs in civil rights, employment, environmental, qui tam, and other complex civil litigation. Miner, Barnhill & Galland has offices in Chicago, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin. For additional information, visit www.lawmbg.com or call 1-312-751-1170.
About the Law Office of R. Andrew Free
The Law Office of R. Andrew Free is a Nashville-based social justice litigation start-up focused on securing, defending, and advancing the civil rights and civil liberties of immigrants, immigrant communities, and immigrant-led movements in the Deep South and across the country.
About the New Mexico Law Immigrant Law Center
The New Mexico Law Immigrant Law Center has offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and serves the immigrant community, including individuals in detention, throughout the state. Its mission is to advance justice and equity by empowering low-income immigrant communities through collaborative legal services, advocacy, and education.