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ICE Officials Knew Dollar/Day Wages Lacked Congressional Authorization

June 22, 2020 (4 min read)

Jacqueline Stevens, June 22, 2020

E-mail ICE Fought to Keep Secret for Six Years May Clinch Minimum Wage Claims against Private Prisons

"For the last ten years I've been conducting research on the history and legality of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its contractors paying $1/day to those in civil custody for work vital to the operation of the detention facilities. 
I've reported on the program's effects on U.S. citizens such as Mark Lyttle and others in ICE custody, the extent of the payments and their contributions to GEO and CCA (now CoreCivic) profits, the first lawsuit filed in Denver, the class certifications, and the positive treatment of these and subsequent cases by judges and appellate courts across the country.  (See other links at end.)

Today, almost six years after FOIA litigation to obtain e-mail behind the program, and following an order by Judge Harry Leinenweber telling ICE its "messaging communications" must be produced,  we now may have a proverbial smoking gun: 2014 e-mail from ICE's Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODDP) challenging ICE's reliance on the 1979 appropriations bill for justification of the work program's $1/day wages, first disregarded and then, according to subsequent e-mail in this release, adopted as the agency's interpretation of appropriations policy for the ICE work program.

On May 1, 2014, ICE Director of ODDP Kevin Landy writes:

As indicated yesterday, I question the accuracy of this statement:
[']Facilities are reimbursed a minimum of $1 per day by ICE per Congressional appropriations standards.[']   Has someone concluded that the 1979 appropriations provision remains binding on ICE in perpetuity?  I don't think that's typically true for language inserted in appropriations bills. 

The subject heading is "NYT materials," presumably prompted by Ian Urbina, who was researching this article published on May 25.  Landy sent it to Barbara Gonzalez in the ICE public affairs office, as well as to other high-ranking officials, including Tae Johnson, then Assistant Director for Custody Management, Enforcement and Removal.  

On May 2, Ian Urbina received a statement claiming the Congressional appropriations standards justifying the work program identical to that proposed on May 1, suggesting ICE's colleagues rejected Landy's analysis.  The paragraph Landy challenged (and Urbina received) states:

Facilities that house the overwhelming majority of ICE detainees provide compensation for participation in voluntary work programs.  Facilities are reimbursed a minimum of $1 per day by ICE per Congressional appropriation standards. As of April 2014, the majority of those participating in some sort of voluntary work program -- well over 95% -- were provided monetary compensation.

Urbina's article was published on May 24.  

On May 27 at 3:34 p.m. Gonzalez proposed a response to questions from Telemundo, Univision, and Entravision triggered by Urbina's article.  The new statement, cleared by DHS, no longer included any reference to the Congressional appropriations authorization for the program.

At 10:39 p.m. that same day, in case one was not clear about the new version's rationale, Gonzalez sent an e-mail stating, "Sir, Per ERO, we struck this part of the background section: 'per Congressional approprations standards." (Emphasis added.)

Crucially, among the recipients was Thomas Homan, who became the acting director of ICE under Trump.  Homan's correspondence with GEO shows him rebuffing GEO's efforts for ICE to cover GEO's legal fees for the class action litigation over the firm's minimum wage and other labor violations, another indication Homan and his colleagues were fully aware that DHS and ICE did not find the 1978 appropriations bill for 1979 appropriations authorized the dollar/day payments for the ICE work program.
(ICE redacted the May 2 paragraph on the Congressional appropriations act in its release to me on Friday.  Fortunately, I have a previous FOIA production including the correspondence to Urbina from a prior FOIA request and this paragraph is not redacted; if I did not have this other release, the recent redaction would have made it impossible to document the change between the ICE statement of May 2 that included the 1979 appropriations rationale and the May 27 e-mail revoking this interpretation.)

In short, the release on Friday tells us that in addition to three federal judges, ICE itself since 2014 has rejected the claim by GEO and misleading statements by its own officials about the program's legal authorization in the appropriations act of 1978. Details on the legislative history of the program and its violations of the FLSA are available here; episodic reports and media coverage of the litgation are available via the Deportation Research Clinic, Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, Northwestern University.  

Thanks to Nicolette Glazer for her fabulous work in drafting motions to obtain the order for these materials to be re-reviewed and unredacted.  And thanks to Andrew Free for assistance in the initial FOIA litigation and brilliant work on the actual class lawsuits now underway.

Stay tuned for more analysis -- trying to upload entire file but server glitch.

6/22 update  -  93 page release now available here."