DENVER – A federal judge in Colorado will allow tens of thousands of people housed at an Aurora immigration center who were required to work, in some instances for $1 a day, to form a class to continue a lawsuit against the company that is contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run the facility.
Nine people have filed lawsuits over the past two years against the GEO Group, which is contracted to run the ICE facility in Aurora. All were housed at the facility while awaiting deportation.
U.S. District Court of Colorado Judge John Kane granted them a class certification on Feb. 27 that also will extend their grievances to approximately 62,000 other people who were housed at the facility over the past 10 years.
The motion to certify the plaintiffs as a class was made last May. The nine plaintiffs had originally sued separately, claiming GEO was non-compliant with the Colorado Minimum Wages of Workers Act, had violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s forced labor provision and had received unjust enrichment because of the plaintiffs’ work at the facility.
Judge Kane dismissed the Colorado wage claim before the ruling, but determined that the class-action claim for the TVPA violations and unjust enrichment could proceed for judgment.
The suit claims that GEO violated the TVPA by requiring people detained at the Aurora facility to perform cleaning and other work duties “under the threat of solitary confinement and other punishments” and that GEO was unjustly enriched because it paid people detained and participating in the voluntary work program just $1 per day.
GEO has argued that ICE facility standards require detainees to keep their areas clean, but that the Aurora facility’s policies “fall outside the scope of ICE’s personal housekeeping requirements.” GEO’s handbook says that people detained can be punished by criminal proceedings, job termination and up to three days in disciplinary segregation, which Judge Kane ruled constituted a “threat.”
The forced labor provision of the TVPA says “threats of force” cannot be used
Detainees were also able to work in a voluntary work program that ICE guidelines say should pay “at least $1.00 (USD) per day,” but their lawyers say GEO misled them to believe they could only be compensated $1 a day for their work.
Thus, the lawyers argue that GEO “derives significant economic benefit from its VWP,” and that it was thus been unjustly enriched.
Lawyers for GEO had argued that the suit should not be class certified because each plaintiffs’ experience at the facility was different and should be addressed individually, which Judge Kane wrote in his judgment was “ultimately unconvincing.”
GEO had also argued that the claims did not hold water because none of the detainees were ever actually put in segregation for not cleaning. But Judge Kane hammered back at that claim as well.
“I find it irrelevant that no Representative was actually disciplined with segregation for violating the Policy, since the forced labor statute includes threats, schemes, plans, and patterns as improper means of coercion,” Judge Kane wrote.
In certifying the class, Judge Kane said all plaintiffs had at least one common question that needed to be answered: “Whether GEO received a benefit from VWP participants’ labor.”
Kane said a determination on that question “will resolve an issue central to the validity of the unjust enrichment claim in one stroke.”
The class seeks at least $5 million in damages for the thousands of current and former detainees.
The original suit was filed on the behalf of Alejandro Menocal, Marcos Brambila, Grisel Xahuentitla, Hugo Hernandez, Lourdes Argueta, Jesus Gaytan, Olga Alexaklina, Dagoberto Vizguerra and Demetrio Valegra. But the class action suit will apply to anyone housed at the Aurora facility over the past 10 years.
The attorneys representing the plaintiffs are all Denver-area immigration lawyers with extensive experience in immigration. They include Hans Meyer, who is representing Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented Mexican national who has taken sanctuary at a Denver church to avoid deportation.
GEO Group Vice President for Corporate Relations Pablo Paez continued to refute the allegations in a statement to Denver7 Friday:
“We have consistently, strongly refuted these allegations, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims. The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”