The campaign to eliminate involuntary servitude for people incarcerated in California from the state constitution is on hold until the legislature reconvenes in January. Efforts to stop forced labor wherever it exists are ongoing in other forums. On October 6, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco will hear the appeal of a $23 million judgment in favor of asylum seekers and other immigrants in an immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Washington, operated by The Geo Group. This multibillion-dollar corporation runs dozens of similar facilities around the United States and globally. Before the judgment was handed down, Geo was paying detainees $1 per day for doing laundry, cleaning, and preparing food.
The legal issues in the case on appeal differ from the anti-slavery initiatives that have already passed in three states and will be on the ballot in five more states in November. The businesses that operate immigrant detention centers cannot rely on involuntary servitude and slavery exceptions in the state and federal constitutions to justify forced labor by detainees because penal exceptions don’t apply to asylum seekers and others who have not been convicted of any crime. Legal distinctions aside, there is little or no practical or moral difference between the way immigrant detainees and prisoners are compensated. Class action lawsuits have been brought around the country, including ones filed recently in California seeking damages on behalf of detainees in two Geo-operated facilities for wage theft, unjust enrichment, and forced labor in violation of federal and state laws. Gay Crosthwait Grunfeld, counsel in one of the California cases, explains that the detainees have no natural choice except to work under the threat of sanctions. “It’s shocking. These workers are forced to do an eight-hour shift for $1 a day. That’s a blatant violation of California minimum wage laws and other labor protections.” (Ms. Grunfeld is a member of Grace Cathedral’s congregation.)
Whether the Court of Appeals will uphold the Washington jury judgment is an open question. The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that a California law phasing out private prisons and detention facilities doesn’t apply to ICE facilities. Some good news is that the California Attorney General has filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the Washington case. There is reason to hope. Let us offer our prayers for advocates working within the legal system, judges, legislators, and all who seek to make the ideals in our constitution and laws a reality not only for the powerful and protected but for all.