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When Grisel Xahuentitla was detained at an immigration detention center in CO, she had to wake up before the other detainees to help serve meals. Then she says she had to vigorously clean the bathrooms, toilets, and showers because her bosses wanted impeccable work.

Xahuentitla was detained at the Aurora Detention Facility in 2014, when the minimum wage in the state was $8 an hour. But Xahuentitla says she had two-hour shifts three different times a day and was paid $1 per day for participating in the detention center’s voluntary work program that allows detainees to earn money while in confinement.

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Now Xahuentitla, 33, is one of nine named plaintiffs in a first of its kind class action lawsuit that seeks the difference between Colorado’s minimum wage and the $1 per day they were paid.

A federal court has also allowed an estimated 60,000 immigrant detainees detained at the Aurora Detention Facility to jointly proceed with forced labor claims against the center’s operator, The GEO Group, the country’s second-largest private prison provider.

“We did all of the work, the only missing piece was that we didn't guard one another,” Xahuentitla told Fusion.

Exterior of the Aurora Detention Facility in Aurora, CO.
Google Maps

The detainees, according to the lawsuit, were often assigned to scrub bathrooms, showers, toilets, and windows throughout GEO’s Aurora facility, including medical facilities. Some also “did detainee laundry, prepared and served detainee meals, [and] assisted in preparing catered meals for law enforcement events sponsored by GEO Group,” according to the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit claims officers in the detention facility forced the detainees to work by threatening them with time in “the hole,” or solitary confinement if they did not comply. The attorneys argue these conditions have created a system that allows GEO Group to become “unjustly enriched.”

A GEO Group spokesperson said the company strongly refutes these allegations and that they intend to continue to vigorously defend themselves against these claims.

“The volunteer work program, which is included in the federal government's mandated national standards for immigration facilities, as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government,” said Pablo Paez, a spokesperson for GEO Group.

Paez went on to say the company’s “facilities, including the Aurora, CO, facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”

He declined to comment on specific allegations made in the lawsuit, including accusations of forced labor.

Work programs in prisons are common. About 88% of the nation’s prisons had work programs of some kind, according to the latest Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities published in 2005 by the Department of Justice.

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But an attorney working with Xahuentitla said detention centers are different than prisons because detainees are not being incarcerated for committing a crime.

"The detainees in immigration detention centers are civil detainees, they are not being detained for a criminal offense, so there is no excuse for forced labor," said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants.

DiSalvo said the judge’s decision to allow the case to move forward as a class was significant because most current and former detainees don’t have the knowledge or resources to bring a lawsuit against a multinational corporation that detained and employed them.

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“It’s a big deal because they probably wouldn’t be able to this by themselves,” DiSalvo told me.

Experts also say the case is significant because it may have larger implications for other detention centers on the national level.

According to a 2015 Center for American Progress report, about 18% of the 34,000 beds in immigration detention centers are managed by for-profit companies under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

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In 2014, about 15.6% of GEO Group's revenue came from contracts with ICE, according to the report.

“[The lawsuit] is a challenge to a practice detention centers engaged in nationwide,” said Carl Takei, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney not involved in the GEO suit who litigates prison conditions class action suits in federal court.

In 2013, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in immigration detention centers, essentially making the federal government and the private prison companies the largest employers of immigrants, according to the New York Times.

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Xahuentitla’s attorneys claim The GEO Group employed just one custodian to maintain the Aurora facility that can houses up to 1,500 people at a time.

By avoiding paying outside contractors the federal minimum wage, detainee labor saves the government and private prison companies at least $40 million a year, according to the 2013 New York Times analysis.

“The lawsuit is significant because private immigration detention facilities actually really can’t run without this forced labor, they rely on it, it’s very much part of it’s profit making scheme,” said Cristina Parker, the immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group based in Texas.

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Takei, the ACLU attorney, said there could be other lawsuits challenging the use of threats of solitary confinement to compel people to work in other detention centers around the country.

“These types of threats are something that that the ACLU and other organizations have heard from people in many different detention facilities, not just the one facility in Colorado where the lawsuit is taking place,” said Takei.

Xahuentitla said she is honored to be one of nine lead plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit.

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“I simply wanted to be the voice of many people who, because of fear, couldn't do anything,” she  said.