Immigration Law

Private prison company must face lawsuit alleging it ran forced labor camps, 5th Circuit rules

  • Print

immigration law book and gavel

Image from

A private prison company accused of forcing immigrant detainees to work for no more than $2 per day is not exempt from a ban on forced labor, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Louisiana said CoreCivic is not exempt from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Law360 reports.

“Judges are not legislators,” the appeals court said in a 2-1 decision. “Legislators write laws—judges faithfully interpret them. So if a party wishes to have its activities exempted from a statute, it must ask the legislature to enact such an exemption, not the judiciary.”

The court ruled in a proposed class action brought by former detainee Martha Gonzalez, who said CoreCivic forced her to perform duties such as cleaning, cooking, landscaping, clerical services and barber services. If she refused, Gonzalez said, the company would impose punishments that included solitary confinement, physical restraints and restrictions on hygiene products.

CoreCivic had argued that, if the federal law applied to its work programs, it would also apply to parents who forced their children to do household chores. The 5th Circuit rejected that argument in an opinion by Judge James Ho, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

“By that logic,” Ho wrote, “a thief who steals a toy from a child could avoid a larceny conviction by claiming that no one would convict a parent for taking his child’s toy away for misbehavior. That argument would surely fail. And that is presumably because we do not construe criminal statutes like larceny or battery to reflexively apply to the parent-child relationship but rather read them in light of parents’ well-established rights over their own children.”

The appeals court also rejected an argument that the federal law should be construed narrowly to cover only forced labor in the international human trafficking context. The text of the law “is broad” and doesn’t contain such a limit, Ho wrote.

Judge Andrew Oldham, another Trump appointee, dissented. He argued that the plaintiff’s case fails because she failed to allege that the program violated the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards, which set standards for voluntary work programs.

In a concurrence to his own opinion, Ho said that issue was not certified in the appeal, and there is no need to reach the issue.

The case is Gonzalez v. CoreCivic.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.