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One Dollar a Day: Labor Conditions Within California Immigrant Detention Centers

This report, published by graduate students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, exposes in detail the inhumane labor conditions at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex that led detained workers to initiate an ongoing labor strike. The report also describes the financial incentive for for-profit detention operators such as GEO Group, Inc. to only pay $1-a-day to workers, price-gouge commissary items and phone calls, and fail to provide a safe workplace.

“Somebody from GEO was benefiting from us cleaning toilets, from us cleaning the roof, from us cleaning the hallways, from us cleaning outside, all the cleaning and all the painting and all the barber shops and everything that we’re getting paid $1 a day for. GEO is benefiting, because if we don’t do it, they have to pay somebody to do it. And they had to pay somebody good money to come in here and do those jobs.”


Master of Public Policy students at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs researched detained individuals’ living and working conditions that led to ongoing labor strikes in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center (MV) and the Golden State Annex (GSA). They interviewed thirteen currently and formerly detained immigrants and examined financial account summaries of eight detained immigrant workers at MV, as well as grievance and write-up forms. During the interview stage of the project, the individuals’ organizing movement escalated into a hunger strike, with up to 84 detained immigrant workers participating across GSA and MV.

2022 Voluntary Work Program Detainee Pay Rate Comparison Table (Prior to Labor Strike*)

* The labor strike account summary started at C-Dorm in April, 2022, and at A-Dorm in June, 2022.

**2022 California State minimum wage.

***Worker F’s account summary has no record of VWP Participation.

Detained interviewees shared revelations about moldy showers, extreme dorm room temperatures, and dead insects and rodents on dorm floors to describe the unsanitary living environment. Poor food quality and a lack of responsiveness by GEO to address concerns was a frequent topic of grievances filed by detained immigrant workers. The interviewees also expressed that the commissary was vital to supplement basic care products that the facility failed to provide, creating additional economic hardship for them due to inflated pricing. These poor living conditions and high costs compelled them to take part in the Voluntary Work Program (VWP) to essentially fund their own survival. Earning only $1 a day, individuals performed important janitorial and maintenance tasks that allowed the GEO Group (GEO) to save substantially on hiring and labor costs at the expense of the detained immigrant workers' well-being. Lack of proper training and PPE created unsafe working conditions, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals without the necessary protective gear. 


Many interviewees detailed retaliation by GEO employees, resulting in additional write-ups and denied access to the commissary. On March 7, 2023, four strikers detained at MV were removed violently from C-Dorm by ICE’s tactical unit and transferred to a detention facility in Texas. Although they were later returned to MV, the violent action by ICE prompted other individuals to stop their hunger strike in fear of similar retaliation. 


Policy Recommendation: 

“Fair Pay and Protections: Application of California State Minimum-Wage and Labor Protections” 

People in ICE custody will be considered employees under GEO Group and thus assume all of California’s labor protections to prevent labor abuses that circumvent ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). 

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