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INS Detainees Not Entitled to Protections and Wages under Federal Fair Labor Standards Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has adopted a lower court’s judgment that held that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) alien detainees were not employees a defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and not subject to its protections.

Former and current INS detainees filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas against INS and INS District Director Omer Sewell, among others. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants employed them at a deficient pay rate, violating the FLSA. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss and the district court granted the motion. The plaintiffs appealed, and on June 5, 1990, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s judgment.

The plaintiffs alleged in their suit that INS violated the FLSA by employing the plaintiff in such jobs as food service and laundry for $1.00 a day. The plaintiffs sought unpaid wages, attorneys’ fees and other relief. The defendants subsequently filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim; with defendant Sewell asserting that detainees were offered work on a voluntary basis for $1.00 a day. This compensation for work had been authorized by 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1555 (d) – which governs aliens in custody – and by another federal statute. In opposition to the defendants’ motion, the plaintiff argued that Sec. 1555 (d) was unconstitutional as it distinguished alienage “Without a compelling government purpose.”

The district court held that an alien detainee did not fall under the protections of the FLSA as it had been enacted “to protect the ‘standard of living’ and ‘general well-being’ of the worker in American industry.” As detainees, the plaintiffs were not employees as defined by the FLSA and were “removed from American industry.” Additionally, having no precedent with identical facts to the plaintiffs’ situation, the district court considered prior federal cases involving prisoners and the FLSA. The court noted in these cases that prisoners, likewise, were removed from American industry and were not employees under the FLSA. The reasoning in the cases, the district court concluded, also applied in the plaintiffs’ case.

The district court further upheld the constitutionality of Sec. 1555(d), stating that it “Is an example of the broad congressional power to regulate the conduct of aliens.”

Based on these analyses, the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The plaintiff then appealed. In adopting the district court’s reasoning and affirming the dismissal, the court of appeals additionally added that “Alien detainees whose work is described by no statute authorizing use of taxpayers’ money to pay government employees cannot claim [to be government employees].” See: Rodolfo v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 902 F. 2d 394 (5th Cir 1990).

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Related legal case

Rodolfo v. Immigration and Naturalization Service