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Protecting Immigrant Workers from Abuse

Ilana Novick

It's time to ensure that workers, no matter what their immigration status, have the same rights, and that their status isn't used an excuse to justify abusive behavior. 

One of the most urgent reasons to move forward with immigration reform is to reduce the harsh, illegal treatment of undocumented workers. 

Unscrupulous employers routinely violate both labor and immigration laws by hiring undocumented workers, then forcing them to work inhumane hours, in dangerous conditions and witholding their pay, among other violations. When workers even so much as asks for the owed wages or better conditions, they risk being detained and deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with little recourse for their labor rights.

These are among the findings of "Workers' Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights," a new report from the National Employment Law Project, which includes 22 case studies from across the United States, and a range of industries. 

Examples of these case studies include a California employer that falsely accused a day laborer of robbery to avoid paying him wages owed. Police turn him over to immigration enforcement agents anyway. An Ohio company, on the eve of an NLRB decision finding it guilty of unfair labor practices, carried out its threat to “take out” union leadership by re-verifying union leaders’ immigration status and work eligibility. In Seattle, one company threatened workers seeking to recover unpaid wages with deportation. An immigration arrest followed. And these are just three cases. 

How do the employers get away with it? According to the report, the combination of a weak labor market and a ramp up in immigration enforcement in states like Arizona has given many employers the upper hand in arguments with their employees, especially if said employees are undocumented. As Rebecca Smith, a co-author of the report noted, "In such a climate of fear, no one is willing to stand up and blow the whistle on terrible workplace abuses. It’s a downward spiral that even drags down law-abiding employers, who are forced to compete with illegal practices. In the end, all low-wage workers suffer as a result." 

That includes legal immigrants, and especially those entering through guest worker programs, whose recipients are subject to similar abuses. According to a New York Times editorial published shortly before the NELP report, these "alphabet-soup" visas all have different names but are characterized by “fraud, discrimination, severe economic coercion, retaliation, blacklisting and, in some cases, forced labor, indentured servitude, debt bondage and human trafficking.” Workers pay recruiters high fees to be eligible, and then spend years dealing not only with paying the fees back, but fighting abuses from their employers, in similar situation to their undocumented counterparts. 

Politicians like Marco Rubio, weary of the current version of Obama's immigration reform plan argue that the latest proposal for an eight year path to citizenship, would fail to reward those who came here legally over "those who broke our immigration laws." As the NELP report and Times editorial point out, however, the two groups could benefit from similar protection.

Rubio and other lawmakers are also working under the assumption that the government is somehow in danger of rewarding undocumented immigrants. In addition, objections to Obama's plan include concerns that border security isn't strong enough, and neither is workplace security for employers. If the results of the case studies in NELP's report are any indication, there are no rewards that come from working under dangereous conditions, with the knowledge that any demands for fair wages and fairer working conditions will be met with the threat of deportation. 

The NELP's report's authors argue that an effective new immigration reform policy must include equal protection for all workers subjected to illegal treatment, regardless of their immigration status; strict divisions between immigration enforcement and labor law enforcement; and protections for workers engaged in union organizing or other worker protection activities.

Border security already has plenty of legislative support. It's time to ensure that workers, no matter what their immigration status, have the same rights, and that their status isn't used an excuse to justify abusive behavior.