Migrant workers and advocates on Friday applauded a Biden administration policy to help protect noncitizen employees who are victims or witnesses of labor rights violations “from threats of immigration-related retaliation from the exploitive employers.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that noncitizens will be able to submit requests for temporary relief from deportation or other immigration actions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “through a central intake point established specifically to support labor agency investigative and enforcement efforts.”
DHS said that “for deferred action requests from noncitizens who are in removal proceedings or have a final order of removal, upon reviewing the submission for completeness, USCIS will forward such requests to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make a final determination on a case-by-case basis.”
As Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, explained Friday in a blog post welcoming the announcement:
Given the current budget constraints of federal labor standards enforcement agencies—which are funded at just one-twelfth the rate of immigration enforcement agencies—the use of deferred action in this manner will encourage workers and whistleblowers to speak out without fear and will act as a force multiplier for underfunded and understaffed labor enforcement agencies, thereby assisting them in their mission to protect worker rights and hold lawbreaking employers accountable. This will make workplaces safer for all workers.
Organizations from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Immigrant Work praised the policy, with Haydi Torres, an organizer with Unidad Latina en Acción NJ, declaring that “this is a huge victory for undocumented workers and the labor movement.”
“Our fight goes beyond our immigration status, it is a fight for all the workers who sustain the economy of this country,” Torres said. “Without our hands there is no work.”
Yale Law School professor James Bhandary-Alexander, an attorney with Unidad Latina en Acción CT, said that “the threat of deportation is like a gun in the boss’s hand, pointed at workers and their rights.”
Workers’ rights leaders such as Victor Agreda agreed, saying that “the bosses always act like they have more power than the workers.”
While “my co-workers and I overcame our fear to denounce labor abuses,” Agreda said, “deferred action is labor justice for all workers who remain silent in the face of abuse.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asserted Friday that “unscrupulous employers who prey on the vulnerability of noncitizen workers harm all workers and disadvantage businesses who play by the rules.”
“We will hold these predatory actors accountable by encouraging all workers to assert their rights, report violations they have suffered or observed, and cooperate in labor standards investigations,” he pledged. “Through these efforts, and with our labor agency partners, we will effectively protect the American labor market, the conditions of the American worksite, and the dignity of the workers who power our economy.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said that “today’s announcement by Secretary Mayorkas is welcome news. Immigrant workers are critical to the success of our economy, yet they are among those who suffer the most exploitation and abuse at work, and then suffer further from intimidation and retaliation when they stand up for their rights.”
Since then-President-elect Joe Biden announced Marty Walsh as his nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Labor in October 2021, migrant worker advocates have pressured the administration to ensure that its immigration and labor policies are aligned and to protect whistleblowers by removing the threat of deportation.
“From Las Vegas to Washington D.C., to Mississippi to New York, we have fought tirelessly to reach this moment,” Rosario Ortiz of the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center noted Friday. “My coworkers and I have been fighting our case for more than three years, facing threats and intimidation on top of wage theft and health and safety risks as workers of Unforgettable Coatings Inc.”
“We’ve met personally with Secretary Walsh and Secretary Mayorkas to call for these protections,” Ortiz said. “Today I am proud of my coworkers and our brothers and sisters across the country who have helped open a pathway for others in our circumstances to seek the protections that we have won.”
While celebrating the administration’s move, Unidad Latina en Acción CT director John Jairo Lugo stressed that “words without actions are not enough. This policy will change lives, but only if our local and national leaders stand with workers loud and clear, to make this policy a reality.”
National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) co-executive director Nadia Marin-Molina vowed that “we are going to fight like hell in the days and weeks ahead to ensure that every single worker who qualifies can get the benefit of this new policy.”
Farmworker Justice, which also applauded the announcement, pointed out that the policy “will have a particularly powerful impact among farmworkers, more than half of whom are either undocumented or on precarious H-2A work visas, and their families.”
“Farmworker Justice has supported advocate demands for these protections for many years, and we look forward to continued engagement with DHS as well as labor enforcement agencies to educate farmworkers and their advocates about the new guidance,” the group said. “We will also continue to advocate for comprehensive solutions that improve the lives of farmworkers and their families, including legislation that provides immigrant workers with a path to citizenship, protections against workplace hazards like extreme heat and pesticides, and the elimination of unjust farmworker exclusions from federal labor protections.”
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