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Clinic Influences Historic Decision on Forced Labor of Detainees

U.S. District Court decision: Private prisons using forced labor of ICE residents is illegal

  • Northwestern professor’s working paper helps attorneys navigate ‘voluntary’ work program
  • Judicial order states that private prisons may not force those in ICE custody to work
  • Many immigrants not legally permitted to work in U.S., but put to work in detention centers

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A Northwestern University professor’s working paper has led to a judicial order stating that private prisons may not force those in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody to work.

“This is the first time a court has told a private prison firm housing people under U.S. immigration laws that it couldn’t force them to work and that if it did, restitution and damages for this ‘unjust enrichment’ could be pursued,” said Jacqueline Stevens, director of Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and author of the paper. She called the decision historic.

A U.S. District Court judge in Colorado issued an order earlier this week telling one of the largest private prison firms in the country, GEO Inc., that if people in their custody under deportation laws could prove they were forced to work, and that the firm was enriching itself as a consequence of this, then plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit would be entitled to millions in damages. 

GEO Inc. holds more U.S. residents in custody under immigration laws than any other private prison firm. The case was brought against the GEO facility in Aurora, Colorado, following attorneys reading a New York Times article featuring a link to a working paper by Stevens.

Immigrants around the country in private detention centers are being put to work for far below the minimum wage. Furthermore, many of them are not even legally permitted to work in the United States.

Stevens said she decided to map out the “voluntary” work program and legal history to help attorneys navigate the program, which has survived because of obscurity and stonewalling on releasing information by ICE.

Attorney Brandt Milstein saw the New York Times article, read Stevens’ paper, and then contacted Andrew Free, FOIA attorney for the Deportation Research Clinic, who was co-counsel on the case, providing legal research and arguments for the plaintiff brief.

“Regardless of whether the appellate court overturns the decision, the United States now has on record a judicial order stating that private prisons may not force those in custody under immigration laws to work, and that firms can be held responsible for financial penalties if they are found to have done so,” Stevens said.

“The actual proof of these forced labor episodes is the low fruit -- it is copiously documented -- and the determination on these points of law will stand as a significant development in the history of civil rights accomplishments.”

The Deportation Research Clinic, housed in the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University, conducts research informed by the emerging paradigm of forensic intelligence, whereby scholarship is tied to analyzing and creating new legal discourses and facts.

For the original complaint, and key excerpts, please go hereThe case is Alejandro Menocal et al. v. The GEO Group, Inc., 1:14-cv-02887-JLK (D. Colo.).

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