During part of her time in an immigrant detention center in Colorado, Grisel Xahuentitla spent six hours a day passing out trays before meals, scrubbing toilets and scouring showers.
She was participating in a voluntary work program that allows detainees to earn $1 a day to help with the upkeep of the facility.
"When you are in there, there's not a lot of options for you," said Xahuentitla, 33, recounting her four-month stay at the Aurora Detention Facility in 2014. "You've got to follow their rules; you got to do what they tell you."
Shortly after her release, she and eight other former detainees filed a lawsuit against the operator of the facility, GEO Group, alleging the company was unfairly enriched by the program.
Now, Xahuentitla's case could affect up to 60,000 immigrants who were held in the facility over the course of a decade. A federal judge ruled on Feb. 27 that the plaintiffs could move forward with a class-action lawsuit against GEO Group, which operates dozens of private prisons and detention centers across the country.
The company, which contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to operate the 1,500-bed center in Aurora, says it has done nothing wrong, noting in a court filing that such programs are "fully authorized by the federal government — and have been for decades."
"We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims," GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said via email.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge John Kane certified two classes of plaintiffs.
One class involves roughly 2,000 people who, like Xahuentitla, participated in the voluntary work program. She also alleges that she was only paid for two of the four weeks she worked in the program.
The other class involves up to 60,000 immigrants who plaintiffs' attorneys say were coerced to mop floors, clean windows, wipe down mattresses and clean up dining areas under the threat of solitary confinement, according to court filings.
GEO attorneys in court papers said ICE requires detainees to keep tidy living quarters, but plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the work detainees were compelled to perform went far beyond the scope of the housekeeping requirement.
By relying on the free work of the detainees, the plaintiffs' attorneys argued, GEO maintains its entire facility with just one janitor on the payroll. They claim the company violated the forced labor provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
"These immigrants came here to work to make a better life for themselves and their families," said Brandt Milstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "Then, when they're caught doing so and detained, they're told it was unlawful to work in this country. Then they're forced to work for nothing in order to pad the profits of a private prison company."
Xahuentitla, an immigrant from Tlaxcala, Mexico, alleges she also was threatened with solitary confinement when she refused to mop a floor. Such work was not part of her duties in the $1-a-day program, she said. The guard never followed through on the threat to put her in solitary, she said.
Xahuentitla now lives in Durango, Colo., and she and her attorney declined to discuss her legal status.
The class-action lawsuit could have significant implications for the company, which stands to lose more now than if the lawsuit had moved forward with just nine plaintiffs. The original complaint sought more than $5 million in damages.
"It's wrong to force anybody to work under threat of solitary confinement for no pay; that's just wrong," Milstein said. "Society seems to accept it more easily if that person is convicted of a serious crime, like rape or murder. Society should not accept it at all when people are being held only on civil immigration charges."
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