Feds pay illegal immigrants for jobs while in custody
By Susan Carroll
The Houston Chronicle, March 26, 2009
If you were to stop on a street corner anywhere in America and knowingly hire an illegal immigrant to do your laundry or clean your basement, you would be breaking the law.
But for years, the federal government has been paying immigration detainees $1 a day to perform menial work in the nations public and private detention centers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials insist there is no double standard, saying the Voluntary Work Program offers detainees a break from the monotony of incarceration and a chance to earn money while they are locked up.
Rutgers University criminal justice professor Michael Welch called the program a 'paradox.'
'Its ironic that these undocumented immigrants are barred from working legally in the community, but while behind bars, they are not only allowed but encouraged to work for a dollar a day,' Welch said.
ICE officials have found an eager work force in their growing network of detention centers, which house an estimated 400,000 immigrants annually.
The agency does not track participation in the work program on a national level, said ICE spokesman Gregory Palmore, though more than 11,000 detainees participated last fiscal year at one Houston detention center alone.
Immigrant advocates offered general support for the program, saying it at least gives detainees an opportunity to pass the time by doing something other than sitting in a cell.
But the irony of the program is not lost on some.
'Why can the U.S. government hire undocumented immigrants? And not only hire them, but get a days work for a dollar?' said Brittney Nystrom, senior legal advisor at the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. 'It really is an absurdity.'
ICE says program legal
ICE officials say the program is perfectly legal. There is no specific statute, regulation or executive order authorizing the program, ICE said in a statement.
The program 'does not constitute employment and is done by detainees on a voluntary basis for a small stipend,' according to ICE.
Nystrom had a hard time buying that legal explanation, citing ICEs own detention standards, which describe the program as providing 'monetary compensation for work completed.'
'That sounds like employment to me,' Nystrom said.
Variety of jobs performed
At Houstons Contract Detention Facility on the citys north side, about 200 immigration detainees are currently participating in the work program, performing jobs including cleaning and washing dishes, laundry, and maintenance of the facility, according to ICE.
Others jobs include working as a barber and helping in the medical clinic, law library or commissary.
ICE officials said no detainees from the Houston facility performed work outside of the detention center grounds.
The Houston detention center is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, one of the nations largest private prison companies.
CCAs warden in Houston, Robert Lacy, referred questions about the program to ICE.
Work programs are commonplace in state and federal prisons.
The lowest-paying jobs in the Federal Bureau of Prison system, such as cleaning and grounds keeping, pay 12 to 40 cents per hour.
In its statement, ICE officials said the program gives detainees 'an opportunity to be gainfully occupied on a voluntary basis.'
The agency added that perhaps the most important benefit from the program is 'reducing inactivity and disciplinary problems.'