New DHS policy protects undocumented whistleblowers
Undocumented immigrants enduring abuses from employers such as wage theft, safety infractions and gender discrimination can now obtain deportation relief when they report workplace violations to a government agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently announced. The new policy grants temporary legal status to workers who cooperate with investigators.
Workers’ rights groups have been urging the federal government to expand existing protections for foreign workers after Public Integrity described the increased risk of wage theft and unsafe working conditions immigrants faced during the pandemic. Undocumented workers often avoid reporting labor violations because employers can punish them by revealing their legal status to immigration authorities.
The new rules expand what is known as “Deferred Action” — a discretionary and temporary form of immigration relief. The program is most often used to obtain deportation protection for crime victims or witnesses who cooperate with law enforcement.
The process will now be simplified and expedited, with only one U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office handling all applications. The agency will also speed up the process for workers to receive temporary work permits.
Sur Legal, a non-profit legal aid group based in Atlanta, is one of the organizations that pushed for the changes.
“This is an important step towards empowering immigrant workers to hold abusive employers accountable and improving working conditions for all workers,” the group tweeted in response to the announcement.
Last year, as part of a series called “Cheated at Work,” Public Integrity investigated immigrant workers’ vulnerability to wage theft and retaliation. The story reported that in August 2021, labor officials obtained a court order to stop a New York business owner from allegedly threatening to call immigration officials if employees cooperated with a wage-violation investigation.
Another “Cheated at Work” story focused on low-wage foreign workers with seasonal work visas that tie them to one employer. If they walk off a job, workers lose their visas.
A seasonal crawfish worker in Louisiana attempted to persuade the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2020 that she left her job, temporarily, to seek medical care because she was ill with COVID-19. She said she feared receiving inadequate medical care if confined to quarantine housing.
In the end, OSHA said it found “insufficient evidence” that she was unfairly fired. Labor wage investigators, however, subsequently found that the guest workers and 99 others at the company had been shortchanged on overtime pay in 2020.
“Unscrupulous employers who prey on the vulnerability of noncitizen workers harm all workers and disadvantage businesses who play by the rules,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, in his announcement. “We will hold these predatory actors accountable by encouraging all workers to assert their rights, report violations they have suffered or observed, and cooperate in labor standards investigations.”
The move reflects a broader, worker-friendly approach to immigration enforcement from President Joe Biden’s administration. In October 2021, Mayorkas ordered DHS to stop large worksite raids and instead investigate companies that exploit undocumented workers.
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.