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Eleventh Circuit Holds Trafficking Victims Protection Act Applies to CoreCivic “Voluntary Work Program”

Plaintiffs Wilhen Hill Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez-Galicia, and Shoaib Ahmed are current and former immigration detainees who were held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, a facility owned and operated by CoreCivic as an immigration detention facility under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE requires CoreCivic to follow the Performance-Based National Detention Standards, one of which requires that it offer detainees an opportunity to participate in a “voluntary work program.” The standards allow detention centers to require detainees to “maintain their immediate living areas in a neat and orderly manner,” but specifically states that they “shall not be required to work” and that all other work assignments are voluntary.

The plaintiffs filed a federal complaint alleging the “voluntary work program” at Stewart was anything but voluntary. They alleged CoreCivic coerced detainees into performing labor by “the use or threatened use of serious harm, criminal prosecution, solitary confinement, and the withholding of basic necessities” such as food, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap and contact with loved ones outside the detention center in violation of the TVPA. CoreCivic moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming that the TVPA did not apply to a private government contractor or cover labor performed in work programs by detainees in the lawful custody of the U.S.

After holding that the TVPA applied to CoreCivic, the district court denied the motion. CoreCivic filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit permitted the appeal on the narrow question of “whether the TVPA applied to work programs in federal immigration detention facilities operated by private for-profit contractors.”

The court noted that the TVPA prohibited anyone from obtaining labor or services: “(l) by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person; (2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or any other person; (3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process; or (4) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint.”

The court held that the language of the TVPA is “plain and unambiguous.” It creates criminal and civil causes of action for “whoever” knowingly obtains labor by various coercive means. The use of the terms “whoever” and “person” places no limit on whom the Act applies to. Referencing the Dictionary Act, the court noted that this included “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.”

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Related legal case

Barrientos v. CoreCivic