Supreme Court Offers Undocumented Workers No Relief from Fear and Danger

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Rosario Reyes, originally from El Salvador, and her son Victor, 7, prepare for a news conference in front the Supreme Court to note the importance of the Court hearing the case regarding President Obama's executive order "to expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and implement Deferred Action for Parental Accountability," December 11, 2015. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

When the Supreme Court failed to uphold President Obama’s executive programs protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation, it doubled down on things the immigrant community already has aplenty: uncertainty and dread.

The future of the executive orders—along with the fate of many immigrant workers—remains in limbo until a ninth justice is confirmed and the presidential election is decided. The uncertainty hits close to home for the labor movement, putting at risk many promising organizing efforts to improve working conditions in industries where undocumented workers have long been exploited.

At issue was the president’s 2014 expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, known as DAPA and DACA, to include protections for more undocumented children, and many of their parents. By granting work permits, the expanded program could have brought up to five million people into the mainstream workforce. For the country’s undocumented workforce toiling in the margins of the economy hopes of fully integrating into the workforce have once again dimmed.

“Immigrant workers are by far the most likely group to face gross exploitation on the job and we all know that when one worksite is dangerous, the standards for working people everywhere get worse,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents many immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. Plant bosses have ordered deportation raids on their own workers when organizing drives began.

The risk of deportation often keeps undocumented workers voiceless, and vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous working conditions. But in the past few years, organizers have had tremendous success building power for undocumented workers. For undocumented domestic workers, among whom wage theft is all too common and their immigration status makes negotiating employment conditions a risk, organizing campaigns in New York and other states have won these workers some basic rights. In Los Angeles, wage theft campaigns in the car-wash industry have also seen success as many undocumented workers have begun to stand up together.

Undocumented construction workers in Texas exposed to wage theft and forced to work long hours with minimal breaks have also seen improvements through organizing. The Workers Defense Project, which organizes laborers in the state, held a vigil outside Texas Governor Gregg Abbott’s mansion in response to the ruling. “Not only will we continue to fight to unfreeze [the deferred action programs], but we will fight for comprehensive immigration reform,” Workers Defense Project executive director Jose Garza said. “Our families are stronger than their hate.”

The Supreme Court’s deadlock will ensure that many undocumented workers remain in the shadows. As immigrant rights advocate Luba Cortés explained in The New York Times, her mother has been undocumented for 16 years and works as a housekeeper. “Housekeepers are the heroes of the immigrant economy—they do their work silently, efficiently, and find money on the table after the job is done,” Cortés writes. “There is no exchange of stories. None of the people whose houses my mom has cleaned know that she was a lawyer, that she is an intellectual and passionate person; they don’t know that she crossed a treacherous border, or that she lives with the constant fear of deportation.”

In 2014, Cortés thought that would change with the new protections granted to undocumented parents. Then the state of Texas, along with 25 other states, sued to stop the program. “For months my mom would call me and ask what was happening with the president’s immigration plan. I would tell her, ‘Nothing new,’ and I could always sense her disappointment,” Cortés writes. “Then the calls got less frequent. Thursday morning, I called her. I had to tell her that the Supreme Court had taken the issue on … and deadlocked. The president’s program couldn’t move forward. My mother still can’t get a work permit, or relief from anxiety-ridden nights.”

Meanwhile, though the initial 2012 DACA order was not at issue in the case, the fate of the more than 800,000 original Dreamers who were granted work permits is also in peril. As Alexia Fernández Campbell reports in The Atlantic, there’s nothing stopping a federal judge from issuing injunctions against the original program using the reasoning in this recent decision. The next president could also do away with the program—which Donald Trump has already said he would do—making the presidential election all the more important for the immigrant community.

The decision impacts not only workers, but employers, too. “Across the country, business owners, growers, hotel builders, they were really looking forward to having a stable and legal workforce,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told The Atlantic. “Now we’re back to square two.”

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