Breakthrough for Immigrant Workers

This month witnessed a breakthrough for labor law enforcement, one that specifically addresses the exploitation of immigrant workers. On January 13, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a guidance document on worksite immigration enforcement. The guidance describes how DHS, on a case-by-case basis, will temporarily forgo deportation proceedings against witnesses in important labor and employment law actions.

How would this work? Take the example of an undocumented immigrant who has worked 50 hours a week for an American custodial company for a year, but the company never paid her or her coworkers time and a half for overtime. If she should file a complaint with the Department of Labor, DOL investigators who needed her as a witness could request that DHS defer any deportation proceedings for up to two years as they pursued the case. She could even apply for work authorization during this period.

There’s a clear need for such a policy. Law-abiding enterprises can’t compete fairly with companies that cut corners by paying less than the minimum wage, fail to pay overtime, operate hazardous workplaces or deny workers the right to organize in unions. And when scofflaw firms get away with such behavior, they lower the standards for all workers. We have a strong public interest in seeing these laws enforced; witnesses who come forward are performing a public service.

Too often such unethical employers get away with these crimes by targeting undocumented workers, knowing that they will be hesitant to file a complaint out of fear of deportation. (When the Catholic Labor Network documented extensive wage theft in the Washington DC construction sector, many of the workers who told us about unpaid overtime said they were reluctant to make a complaint because of their immigration status.) But we need these witnesses to come forward. By offering deferred action or parole in acknowledgment to their contribution to the case, the DOL makes it more likely that even undocumented workers will stand up and report workplace violations.

Undocumented workers who report illegal labor exploitation are doing a service to the community. A temporary deferral of deportation proceedings is a price worth paying to obtain their testimony and secure justice for all workers.