New Orleans – Martha came to the United States from Mexico to work in a seafood processing facility in the Gulf South on a temporary labor visa, but it’s unclear if all of her fellow laborers were similarly documented. Her boss allegedly threatened to call immigration authorities and have workers deported if didn’t they finish high volumes of work on time.
Workplace retaliation is against the law, regardless of where workers come from. Having attended know-your-rights trainings with labor advocates, Martha knew it. Her employer threatened her family when he heard that she planned to report the abuse, but Martha contacted federal labor authorities anyway. She received a U Visa, one of two special visas that provide immigration protection for workers who report exploitation and abuse.
U Visas protect immigrants who suffer “substantial” mental or physical abuse, including domestic violence and sexual assault. T Visas protect victims of labor trafficking, which involves using of force, fraud or coercion to compel someone to work. Both allow immigrants to stay in the U.S. and provide a path toward legal permanent residency as long as they are willing to assist law enforcement in investigating the crimes they report.
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In an interview, Martha said that a recent Trump administration decision to reverse an Obama-era policy is already preventing other workers in her industry from coming forward and reporting workplace exploitation. Under a policy issued last month, the Department of Labor now refers applications for U and T Visas to a law enforcement agency, such as local police department or Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) investigative arm. The department then waits for the law enforcement agency to concur that a crime covered by the program has occurred before issuing a visa and may allow police to make that decision themselves.
This is a wonky but significant change in federal policy that opponents say will force workers to wait longer for protective visas and remove incentives to report abuse to the Labor Department in the first place. Last year, the administration said it would start referring rejected U and T visa applicants for deportation and even deport applicants while they are waiting for approval. Martha, who organizes with labor advocates for immigrants, said workers have heard about the changes and fewer are willing to risk coming forward.
Martha attempted to question Department of Labor officials about the change during a meeting with local stakeholders in New Orleans on Friday. “How can we assure workers that their immigration status is not going to be shared with ICE?” she said through an interpreter.
Martha said immigrants know that many local police departments cooperate with ICE. Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE unit that investigates labor trafficking, also led the raids on the Mississippi meatpacking plants last week that resulted in 680 immigration arrests and viral images of children crying after learning their parents were taken while they were in school. Those raids targeted factories where immigrant workers organized unions, fought for better working conditions and challenged discrimination, even winning a federal settlement against Koch Foods for sexual harassment.
“Do I report an abusive workplace situation, or do I stay with my family?” Martha said.
While President Trump’s threatening tweets and “zero-tolerance” policies make for explosive headlines, his administration is using the federal bureaucracy to make life harder for immigrants in quieter ways as well.
For example, the administration is now attempting to crush the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), the union representing more than 400 immigration judges. Immigration courts are not an independent judiciary. Instead, they are run by the Justice Department. While immigration judges cannot comment publicly on federal policy, the NAIJ has been vocal in criticizing Trump’s push to speed up deportation proceedings and clear a massive backlog of cases that has grown significantly under an expanding immigration dragnet.
The union has also argued that immigration courts should be independent of the Justice Department, an idea that has found support among a growing number of congressional Democrats as the administration uses its control of federal agencies to push a hardline immigration agenda.
“They are now trying their best to shut us up,” said Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles who spoke to Truthout in her capacity as president of the NAIJ.
Earlier this week, the administration filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority arguing the NAIJ should be decertified as a union because its members should be considered “management officials” and therefore ineligible to collectively bargain as employees. Management officials are defined as employees who “formulate, determine, or influence the policies of the agency.” Tabaddor said this definition raises serious questions about the role of judges who have sworn to be impartial arbiters of the law.
“We are losing more and more control of our daily duties,” Tabaddor said. “In a nutshell, everything we are doing is being micromanaged now and being directed from above, and the Department of Justice is coordinating every effort with the [Department of Homeland Security].”
In a joint statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) said the administration’s attempt to sideline the NAIJ underscores why the immigration court system should be separated from the Executive Branch. The NAIJ has been a “vocal critic” of administration policies aimed at robbing immigrants of due process, and the push to decertify the union is “blatant retaliation for this opposition and an obvious attempt to shield immigration court operations from public view.”
The lawmakers said they are planning hearings to craft legislation aimed at creating an independent immigration judiciary. However, Congress has routinely failed to pass bipartisan immigration reforms over the past decade. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is creating a culture of fear with bombastic rhetoric and frightening raids, all while advancing internal policies that prioritize the punishment of immigrants above all else. Altogether, Trump’s crackdown is causing millions of people to live in fear, pushing them further into the shadows and making it much more likely that they will fall victim to abuse and exploitation.