News & Politics

An Early Halloween Scare: Immigration Agents Attacking Workers' Rights!

The exploitation of undocumented immigrants threatens the wages, benefits and working conditions for all workers, but we're not addressing the root problem.

In our recent report on immigration policy and the middle class, I made the case that theexploitation of undocumented immigrant workers threatens to drive down wages, benefits and working conditions for middle-class workers and low-income Americans striving to earn a middle-class standard of living. The solution, I argue, is to provide a path to legal status for the undocumented immigrants: this would maximize the economic benefits undocumented workers, consumers, and taxpayers already bring to the nation and help ensure that exploitation doesn't harm the rest of us.

Unfortunately, that's not the direction the country is going. Instead, a new study by researchers from the AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work and theNational Employment Law Project documents a decline in the enforcement of labor standards at the same time the nation has experienced an immigration crackdown in the workplace. The result only worsens workplace exploitation. As the study points out:

"The single-minded focus on immigration enforcement without regard to violations of workplace laws has enabled employers with rampant labor and employment violations to profit by employing workers who are terrified to complain about substandard wages, unsafe conditions, and lack of benefits, or to demand their right to bargain collectively... ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] actions have created incentives for shady employers to continue hiring and abusing undocumented workers, since the deportation of their employees may excuse those employers from complying with labor laws."

It's fitting that the report was released a week before Halloween, since it's full of frightening stories of immigration agents - or local police enforcing immigration law - intervening in ways that facilitate workplace abuses. We read of ICE helicopters hovering menacingly above picket lines; immigration agents who came promptly to arrest workers who had complained about workplace safety; and one story of a worker suffering from a horrific workplace injury, swept up by immigration agents as he entered the courthouse to press a workers' compensation claim. His employer, apparently delighted that he might not have to pay for an injury caused by his business' negligent practices, called out: "I'm sending you back to Mexico... I have no use for you now." If that's not haunting, I don't know what is.

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One quibble: the authors offer suggestions for more thoughtful enforcement of both immigration and labor laws, but these horror stories call for bolder solutions. An overhaul of immigration and labor laws would be a better solution still.

Amy Traub is the Associate Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute