Immigrants at San Diego Detention Center File Class-Action Lawsuit Alleging Exploitation and Forced Labor

One of the pod sections at Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigrants held at a San Diego County detention center are suing the private prison company that runs the facility, alleging exploitation and forced labor that their attorneys say breaks human trafficking laws.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Wednesday in San Diego federal court, alleges that immigrants at Otay Mesa Detention Center are paid at most $1.50 per day, and sometimes not paid at all, for their work as kitchen staff, janitors, barbers and various other roles. It further alleges that the facility doesn’t provide all of the basic necessities that detainees need for daily life, such as soap, which means they have to work in order to buy those items at the commissary.

The lawsuit also contends that facility staff have threatened to put detainees in solitary confinement or take away visitation rights if they said they didn’t want to work.

CoreCivic, the company that contracts with the government to operate the facility, said it does not comment on pending litigation and has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

“Our complaint alleges CoreCivic illegally enriches itself on the backs of a captive workforce,” said Korey Nelson, partner at Burns Charest, a law firm with offices in Dallas and New Orleans that specializes in complex class-action suits.

Otay Mesa Detention Center holds detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for those with pending cases in immigration court.

A spokeswoman for ICE deferred to CoreCivic when asked about the case. ICE is not named as a defendant.

Although work programs that pay little are common in prisons, the complaint argues that there is a legal difference for those in the immigration system.

The complaint hinges on the fact that immigration court is a civil court system, not a criminal one. That means that, unlike people in jail or prison, those going through the immigration court system cannot be detained as punishment.

ICE has authority to detain someone only if the agency believes that person won’t show up in court or if the agency suspects the person would be dangerous to society if released.

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SOURCE: LA Times, Kate Morrissey