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U.S., Mexico sign agreement to help protect Mexican workers here

WASHINGTON – Labor Day may be a U.S. holiday, but the Justice Department wants to make sure labor rights are protected for everyone working in this country – including noncitizens.

That was the goal of an agreement signed last week with the Mexican government that formalized the process for Mexican workers to have their discrimination complaints considered by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

An official at the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix welcomed the deal Tuesday, saying his consulate gets about 10 complaints a month from Mexican workers who feel they have been cheated by their employers.

Most of the cases are complaints about overtime pay but, “this understanding will strengthen the opportunity for us to educate our people and help them to make complaints for all the issues they’re experiencing,” said Felix Herrera Herrera, consul for protection and legal affairs at the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix.

Fielding labor complaints from foreign workers here is not new for the Justice Department. But the agreement signed last week creates a streamlined complaint process for consulate workers to file claims with Justice, and calls on Justice Department workers to travel to all 50 Mexican consulates in the U.S. to train staff there on handling claims.

In 2015, Mexican consulates in the U.S. educated almost 60,000 workers nationwide on what they should do if they experience discrimination, said Mexican Ambassador Carlos Sada at last week’s signing of the agreement in Washington.

“It is our obligation as representatives of Mexico, in the sense of protecting our people,” Sada said.

A U.S. official at Thursday’s signing ceremony said partnerships with embassies are key tools in educating workers about their rights.

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“It’s very important because there are a lot of immigrants who come to this country who are unaware of their rights. And many times those individuals turn to their consulates or their embassies for help or assistence,” said Alberto Ruisanchez, deputy special counsel in the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices.

But one critic said both Justice and the Mexican Embassy have their priorities misplaced.

“An embassy’s role is to represent that government, not make deals or enforce laws,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“Additionally, the DOJ’s assertion that Mexico has taken a leading role in labor rights is laughable, because if Mexico was actually playing a role you wouldn’t have millions of Mexicans coming to the U.S. to work,” Mehlman said.

But Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, said protecting workers from Mexico can benefit all workers.

“I see too often the harmful effects of discrimination on a person’s dignity and ability to work,” Gupta said. “But I also see opportunities and possibilities that all workers can seize when we protect their rights in the workplace.”

Justice’s Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibits employer discrimination based on citizenship, immigration status and national origin.

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Claire Caulfield/Cronkite News

An embassy official introduces Mexican Ambassador Carlos Sada, seated, and Vanita Gupta of the Justice Department before the signing of an agreement to protect workers’ rights in the U.S.