In this 2017 photo, a guard with the GEO Group stands in a detainee processing section of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In this 2017 photo, a guard with the GEO Group stands in a detainee processing section of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

DOJ: Immigration jail shouldn’t have to pay minimum wage

Detainees perform kitchen, laundry and janitorial tasks at the privately run center in Tacoma.

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

SEATTLE — The Trump administration is opposing Washington state’s effort to make a privately run, for-profit immigration detention center pay detainees minimum wage for the work they do.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued The GEO Group in 2017, saying its Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma must pay the state minimum wage to detainees who perform kitchen, laundry, janitorial, maintenance and barbershop tasks. The lawsuit seeks to force GEO to turn over profits it gained by underpaying them — an amount that could reach into the millions.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan has already issued some key rulings in the state’s favor. But in a “statement of interest” filed this week, the Justice Department called the lawsuit “an aggressive and legally unjustified effort by the State of Washington to interfere with federal immigration enforcement,” and it urged Bryan to reject it.

The department said that because the state’s minimum wage act doesn’t apply to inmates of state prisons, it impermissibly discriminates against the federal government to apply it to a federal contractor holding detainees on civil immigration violations. The judge has already rejected that argument, but on Thursday agreed to reconsider it and other arguments and set a hearing for Sept. 12.

“The State insists that these federal immigration detainees are ‘employees’ under state law, even though it simultaneously exempts similarly-situated detainees in state facilities from the minimum wage,” the Justice Department said. “Basic constitutional principles prevent a State from interfering with the federal government’s activities in the way Washington is trying to do here.”

The Northwest Detention Center is a 1,575-bed facility, one of the nation’s largest privately run immigrant detention centers. On any given day, about 470 of them perform some sort of work through a voluntary program, earning $1 per day. GEO has the authority to pay more, but Congress will only reimburse it up to that amount.

Washington argues it is entitled to enforce the minimum wage law against GEO just as it’s entitled to enforce it against any other company. The law does exempt state prisons from paying inmates for work, but it doesn’t do the same for private detention centers, it says.

Further, the state says, GEO’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requires the detainee work program to comply with all applicable labor laws — including Washington’s minimum wage law, since GEO is in a clear employer-employee relationship with the detainees.

“The Trump Administration apparently thinks the for-profit, private company that runs Northwest Detention Center should be above the law,” Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “Despite President Trump’s position, GEO must comply with Washington law and either pay the detainees that run its facility minimum wage, or pay minimum wage to Washington workers to do the job.”

GEO has attacked Ferguson’s lawsuit as being “politically motivated.” In court documents, the company says the state has known about the dollar-a-day payments since as early as 2009, but that Ferguson did not file a lawsuit until after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and his implementation of controversial immigration policies.

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