HOUSTON — The kitchen of the detention center here was bustling as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees. Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work — mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves.
As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.
This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates.
In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed.
Federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal, and a cost-saver for taxpayers. But immigrant advocates question whether it is truly voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.
Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.
The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.
Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status.
About half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge, or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.
“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, who worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota, and North Carolina before he was held for 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”
Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention.
He was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his asylum visa from Guatemala, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error. He has since been granted permanent residency.
Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year.
“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency.