Working for $1 a day

Lawsuit contends contractor at ICE detention center in Batavia is violating the law by assigning work to refugees and paying them only $1 a day to perform menial, sometimes dangers tasks

The company that oversees people held at the immigration detention center in Batavia exploits detainees by paying them $1 a day to perform menial labor, according to a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court. 

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 3, stops short of saying the detainees are forced into doing the work, but suggests that there’s an implicit threat of consequences if they refuse.

The practice of assigning work to detainees, a longstanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative known as the “Voluntary Work Program,” violates the state constitution and labor law, the suit contends.

The company, Akima Global Services, or AGS, is halfway through a 10-year contract with ICE’s 650-bed Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia. The company provides food, transport and security services, including supplying firearms and ammunition. 

While in custody, the detainees are “hired” by Akima to perform menial labor at the facility — tasks that range from exterminating lice to buffing floors — at a pay rate of $1 a day.

That violates the state’s constitutional prohibition on private companies profiting from incarcerated labor, as well as minimum wage law, according to the lawsuit, filed the Workers Justice Center of New York, a legal aid and advocacy group.

Dalila Yeend, a former detainee and plaintiff, said she and others provided “basically free” labor.

“This practice of paying people one dollar per day is bordering on slavery. For the total hours that I worked, it was pennies per hour,” she said in a press release. “When I think that I was working for a for-profit company, it’s disgusting.”

The dollar-a-day wage isn’t paid in cash, but rather a credit deposited into a commissary account to purchase goods at the facility, like soap, Cheetos and Ramen noodles.

The service is owned and operated by Akima, the lawsuit noted. 

The company’s duties at the facility were so broad, the lawsuit claims, that Yeend and co-plaintiff  Bounnam Phimasone, along with other detainees, were assigned work “under the constant implicit threat of discipline or other negative change in the conditions of their confinement.”

Potential punishments could range from losing access to the phone and the commissary, or being placed in solitary confinement, the lawsuit said.

“AGS had complete control, not only over their employment, but also over every other aspect of their lives in detention.”

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ICE told Investigative Post it would not comment on pending litigation, despite the agency not being named as a defendant. Akima, with offices in Virginia and Alaska, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families WNY, a local advocacy organization that opposes the very existence of the Batavia facility, has long criticized its treatment of detainees. 

To Connor, there’s nothing voluntary about the program. It’s “coercion,” she said.

“Working for $1 a day for commissary, when the commissary is required to make phone calls to lawyers and family, buy stamps to mail letters and important documents, buy extra food because the portions provided in Batavia are notoriously meagre, is not a choice,” Connor said.

The Batavia facility is one of about 25 immigrant detention centers ICE manages. Detainees are accused of violating immigration law and held on civil, not criminal, charges. Their fate is often deportation, a decision made by a federal administrative law judge.

About half the people in civil detention at the facility have no criminal history, according to records maintained by the Syracuse University’s Transactional Recordings Clearinghouse.

Those in custody at Batavia are held because they await deportation or couldn’t post the bail imposed after an arraignment-like hearing. Others are asylum seekers.

Yeend’s tasks began after she was denied bail in immigration court and confined to Batavia. Her work included custodial and kitchen-related duties for up to five hours a day.  

Once, she was told to clean and sterilize lice-infested housing units and “paid” with “items AGS had confiscated from other women” no longer in Batavia, the suit said.

Phimasone, detained in late 2018 for eight-months, was tasked with buffing floors using chemical agents for three to six hours a day, five days a week. 

The value of Akima’s contract with the federal government was not immediately available. The company is a subsidiary of a corporation controlled by Native tribes in Alaska.

Since leaving the facility and speaking out about the work program, Yeend became an immigration activist and member of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting immigrant communities.

Gloria Martinez, a co-chair of the organization’s governing board, said in a press release issued by the Workers Justice Center that she’s heard similar allegations about detainee exploitation at the facility.

Cleaning and sanitization duties for detainees continue during the pandemic, even in the sick bay where those with the coronavirus were held, Martinez said. 

“One of our members risked his life as a detention center essential worker being paid a dollar a day to clean the infirmary and the living quarters of those who contracted COVID,” she said.

The detention center has been in the news of late regarding the infection of detainees with COVID-19 and ICE’s practice of releasing detainees at a bus stop near the facility, often without sufficient notice or funds to secure transportation.