Yet another example of the urgent need for the anti-mass-incarceration movement to unite with the immigrant rights struggle was highlighted in a mainstream article published by the New York Times this week.
On May 24, the Times stated that the federal government is now the largest employer of migrant labor. Worse, it is paying them a mere $1 a day.
Every day in detention centers across the country, at least 5,000 migrants are working either at $1 a day or are earning nothing at all, reported the Times. Some are paid only in sodas or candy.
The 5,000 figure means that in 2013, at least 60,000 immigrants worked for the federal government — more than “any other single employer in the country,” wrote the Times.
But independent studies indicate that that figure is way too low.
Professor Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University believes that the figure is closer to more than 135,000 immigrants a year, based on her studies.
The dollar-a-day pay amounts to an outrageous 13 cents an hour. The U.S. government and the private companies who own the detention centers, however, are saving $40 million or more a year with this slave labor.
The Times article points out that the pay rate of $1 was set in 1950 under a law that created the federal Voluntary Work Program. The equivalent today would be about $9.80. The law has not been reviewed since 1979, when Congress decided not to raise it at that time. The law was challenged under the Fair Labor Standards Act but was upheld.
Professor Stevens also believes that the practice violates the 13th Amendment because, by law, any companies doing business with the federal government must match local wages. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.
The Department of Homeland Security as well as the right-wing media attempted to put a positive spin on this report of stolen labor. Federal representatives said that the program is “voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers.”
But immigrants themselves, as well as their advocates, reveal another story.
The truth is that every day federal laws are being broken in order to turn a captive population into a self-contained labor force. And this forced labor is far from voluntary, even if some detainees do volunteer.
Migrants report how they are forced to go to work even if they are sick. One detainee had torn ligaments in his knees from a slippery kitchen floor, but still had to go to work. Another was threatened with solitary confinement by the guards if he did not go to work, despite his fever.
“Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year,” the Times reports. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said, “The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities.”
This blurs immensely the superexploitation of prison labor. It ignores how the prison-industrial complex knows no bounds in first incarcerating primarily Black and Brown people, and then subjecting them to work for free under miserable and even horrid conditions.
Productive labor indeed enriches the human spirit. But not under the capitalist system.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, in prisons that are meant to break the human spirit. They are not places where one would eagerly volunteer to go to work.
Labor under the U.S. prison-industrial complex is meant to beat poor workers into submission in order to control and dominate them. And the workers must do this labor for free.
In the case of immigrants, most in detention are civil detainees who are, for the most part, waiting to hear about their legal status. More than half of them are later permitted to remain in the U.S., demonstrating even further how unjust their incarceration is in the first place.
But whether you have allegedly broken any laws or not — whether one is incarcerated for crossing the border without documents or for getting caught up in the so-called “war on drugs” — the U.S. justice system is meant to round up workers, especially people of color, in what amounts to a war on the poor by the ruling class.
Profit-driven war on poor
Most of the immigrant detainees are held in prisons built and controlled by the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, businesses hated by the anti-mass-incarceration movement. And rightly so.
According to the Times, these companies were struggling to make money in the 1990s. More prisons had been built than could be filled. But with the passage of the “bed mandate” by Congress, which requires that at least 35,000 beds be filled every night by ICE, these corporations’ profits are now booming.
The anti-immigrant witch hunt that began in 2005 meant riches for these corporations.
CCA’s profits have jumped up more than 60 percent over the last 10 years. Its stock rose from $3 to $30. In 2013, CCA made $300 million in net income. The GEO Group made $115 million.
The mass detentions and incarcerations of not only Black and Brown people but poor whites as well is a crime against humanity. Prison profits are responsible for the loss of an entire generation of workers who have been subjected to unspeakable, inhumane conditions such as the widespread use of solitary confinement.
Now more than ever, the movement to defend immigrants must unite with the movement to stop mass incarcerations. The working-class movement overall must fight to raise the minimum wage — not just for fast-food workers, not just for low-wage workers on the streets and in the communities, but behind bars as well.