Stop deporting immigrant workers

There are millions of hard-working immigrants in our country who are raising families, paying taxes, and contributing to our communities, and they live every day under constant threat of being deported and separated from their loved ones. While immigrant and faith groups have been effective in sounding the alarm about this crisis, deportation has a dark side that rarely gets discussed – and it impacts each and every person in our country.

Our current broken immigration laws allow bad employers to hold all of the cards – bad employers mistreat and underpay immigrant workers because they know they can get away with it. With one call to local law enforcement, companies can have victims of their workplace crimes sent out of the country at the expense of taxpayers. It has become far too easy for these companies to manipulate the deportation system as a weapon against their employees, threatening retaliatory deportation of immigrant workers who try to organize or speak out about wages and working conditions.

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Bad employers send a powerful, chilling message in the workplace when they deport employees for speaking out. It’s so powerful, in fact, that the threat of deportation looms often looms large enough to silence workers from blowing the whistle and exercising their labor and civil rights. The result is that too many workers are treated as second class and are too susceptible to abuse.

The fear of deportation is real. Recently, a group of workers employed on a public workers project in the Washington, DC area came together and organized to protest reported wage theft by their employer, only to have their immigration status used in retaliation against them. As a result, more than half of the workers were fired and many workers and their family members were placed in deportation proceedings.

And it’s not just immigrant workers and families who suffer. When unscrupulous employers illegally lower labor standards for certain groups of workers – including undocumented immigrants – they actually depress wages and conditions for all workers. By driving down labor standards to the lowest common denominator, they make it harder to enforce laws and standards even for native-born workers, and harder for employers who play by the rules to remain competitive.

Not surprisingly, most Americans are against the deportation of workplace whistleblowers. A March 2013 survey of registered voters found that 80 percent agree that “immigrant workers who blow the whistle on abusive employers are helping U.S. workers defend workplace standards, and they should have the opportunity to stay in the United States to work toward citizenship.”

Communities and commonsense policymakers have had enough of the deportations. Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) signed the TRUST Act into law last weekend, a bill that gives law enforcement much more leeway to respond to immigration detainer requests and sets a minimum standard to ensure that those with most low-level, non-violent offenses are not wastefully held for deportation purposes. All month, immigration advocates have held vigils, concerts, forums, and protests demanding Congressional action. This weekend, thousands more are planning a massive civil disobedience in Arizona aimed at shutting down Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the day.

The tide is turning, but we need stronger executive action to end our country’s unjust deportation policy. When immigrant workers have rights and everyone competes on a level playing field, workers across the board do better. We need to stand up for immigrants who work in unsafe, abusive jobs with the constant threat of deportation hanging over them. By doing so, we stand up for the rights of all workers.

Gupta is executive director of Jobs with Justice and American Rights at Work, an organization leading the fight for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits all workers.