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One Dollar a Day: Labor Conditions Within California Immigration Jails

May 19, 2023 (1 min read)

UCLA MPP, May 2023

"Over 70 years since its inception, a provision under an appropriations bill that the 95th
United States Congress passed has allowed immigrant workers in detention centers to earn
just $1 a day. Working alongside our client, the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice
(CCIJ), we bring forth the experiences of detained immigrant labor strikers under the
Voluntary Work Program. Our research aims to investigate living conditions, working
conditions, and the ongoing labor strike in two ICE immigrant detention centers operated by
the private detention corporation known as the GEO Group (GEO). Based on our findings, we
present several policy options and recommend specific policy solutions aimed at improving
conditions for detained immigrants.
We first provide background information on the relevant entities and stakeholders, as well as
historical context and implications of the existing wage practices in private immigrant
detention. To support this research, we conducted a thorough review of the academic
literature on detention conditions, interviewed detained immigrants, and analyzed financial
account data. In addition, we examined internal records, which included both grievances
submitted by detainees and write-ups issued by detention officers.
We found that all interviewees mentioned poor food quality and living conditions.
Interviewees discussed the lack of proper cleaning and sanitation equipment in their working
conditions. Regarding the strike, many described the retaliation by GEO employees, resulting
in additional write-ups and denying access to the commissary. We also found overarching
themes beyond the sections, such as financial hardship or overall mistreatment by GEO staff.
These overarching themes helped form the structure and topics of our research sections.
The patterns that arose from our research allowed us to draft five policy options that either
the state of California or the federal government could implement to benefit detained
immigrant workers. We evaluated the options based on four criteria: improving living
conditions, improving working conditions, financial feasibility, and political feasibility. Our
policy evaluation concludes that our highest priority recommendation is to implement “Fair
Pay and Protections: Application of $15.50 California State Minimum-Wage and Labor