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Lifting the floor in the next American economy

The deeper we get into presidential election season, the more questions the candidates face—and should—about how they’ll combat income inequality and increase economic opportunity.

They should start by protecting the most vulnerable workers in the U.S.: low-wage immigrant workers.

{mosads}Shellion Parris was recruited to come to the United States from Jamaica on an H-2B guestworker visa and clean luxury condos on Florida’s Emerald Coast. She was trapped by crushing program-related debt, overpriced company housing that left her with zero-dollar paychecks, and retaliatory threats of firing and deportation when she and fellow workers went on strike. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services said it added up to involuntary servitude—but still denied the workers protection from deportation as victims of a serious crime.

Jose Adan Fugon and Gustavo Barahona were waiting for a ride to work when local police near New Orleans racially profiled them and detained them without charge. Jose and Gustavo were improperly transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which scheduled them for deportation—in spite of a Department of Homeland Security civil rights review that confirmed the racial profiling and recommended the workers be released. National pressure forced ICE to release Gustavo, but the agency had already deported Jose.

Vicente and Pedro work in the kitchen of Teriyaki House in Providence, Rhode Island. They report spending years working grueling 10- to 12-hour days, permitted only a single 15-minute meal break per shift. Vicente and Pedro say their employer routinely lied on their paystubs about the hours they worked. And forget proper overtime pay—they assert they were not even paid the minimum wage. After they brought these complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor, Vincent and Pedro say their boss responded with physical threats and intimated that the workers could be deported if they continued to pursue justice.

These aren’t isolated cases of abuse. For immigrants in low-wage jobs, they’re the norm. Too often, when immigrant workers try to assert basic rights—to the minimum wage and overtime, to improve conditions by forming a union, or simply to look for work—employers use threats of immigration enforcement as a weapon to retaliate against them.

Why should this matter to U.S. workers—and the candidates who want to represent them? Because U.S. workers’ own wages and employment conditions are at stake too. When employers can use immigration-related threats to exploit immigrants, wages and conditions fall for everyone employed in the same industries. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling floor leaves everyone scrambling. High-road employers suffer too, because they are forced to compete with businesses that rely on exploitation to undercut the competition.

But when immigrants are safe to organize and are protected when they report abuse, these abusive employers have nowhere to hide. Immigrant workers help drive them out of the shadows, and help labor law enforcement agencies bring them to justice. When immigrant seafood workers escaped forced labor in Louisiana in 2012 and won immigration protections, they helped organize workers across the Louisiana seafood industry. They forced Walmart sit down to discuss human trafficking on its supply chain, and secured improved health and safety standards for tens of thousands of U.S. warehouse workers.

That’s why the POWER Act (Protecting Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation) is so important. The bill, set to be introduced in the U.S. House this week by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), includes commonsense provisions to protect workplace standards for all of America’s workers by protecting the most vulnerable working people from labor and civil rights abuses.

The POWER Act increases legal protections for immigrants who blow the whistle on labor abuse. It makes sure that businesses that respect the law and maintain minimum work standards are not at a disadvantage to exploitative employers. And it lets law enforcement agencies do their job by ensuring that witnesses and victims of workplace crimes aren’t deported in the middle of an investigation.

These commonsense provisions were included in the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013—demonstrating their broad appeal. While comprehensive immigration reform has stalled, Congress does not have to stand by as unscrupulous employers use the threat of immigration enforcement to drive down pay and working conditions for entire industries. Congress should pass the POWER Act to help immigrants safeguard basic standards for every worker in the United States. And every responsible presidential candidate should add the POWER Act to their platform.

The challenge of expanding opportunity in the next American economy is a massive one. But protecting our most vulnerable workers to lift the floor for all is a very good way to start.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice.


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