Immigration enforcement turned on its head

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The bad actors have gotten good at calling in the immigration police whenever workers stand up for their rights — for example, when workers demand to be paid the full wages they’ve earned. Along the way, an immigration enforcement system originally intended to stop employers from hiring undocumented labor has been completely turned on its head.
 
A new report from the National Employment Law Project documents 22 examples in which employers used the immigration status of their workers to thwart labor claims. These cases of retaliation come from around the country, in nearly every low-wage sector, from agriculture to construction, to restaurant, retail, landscaping, domestic work, shipping, food service and food processing.
 
That some employers threaten or actually report workers who challenge labor abuses to immigration authorities is nothing new.  What is new is the extent to which the massive build-up of immigration enforcement resources in recent years has given these employers unprecedented new tools to use against their workers.
 
Some employers have used the much-touted “E-Verify” work verification system to intimidate workers. Employers have also taken advantage of the fact that local police have become increasingly involved in enforcing immigration laws, purportedly to focus on the deportation of serious criminals. But in practice it works differently. In numerous instances, workers landed in jail — and then deportation proceedings — after employers accused them of crimes just so they could avoid paying the workers their earned wages. Workers still faced deportation, even after being cleared of false criminal charges.
 
These tactics have allowed unscrupulous employers to subvert both the immigration and labor laws. Silencing a broad swath of workers in an industry means that wages remain low, abuses common, and the right to collectively bargain an elusive dream.
 
Unsavory and illegal employment practices have taught us valuable lessons for immigration reform. Of course, immigration reform must include and broad and clear path to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens. But we must also ensure that workers can speak up about labor abuses and stand up for better wages and working conditions. That means a strong firewall between labor law enforcement and immigration enforcement. It means that workers actively engaged in defending their labor rights must have whistleblower protections.
 
If we want to do immigration reform right, we must never again allow bad employers to take advantage of vulnerable workers and evade immigration and labor laws in the process.
 
Smith coordinates the Immigrant Worker Justice Project for the National Employment Law Project.