Trump’s Immigration Crackdown is Dangerous for Workers (Not Just Immigrants)

(Photo: AP/Ed Andrieski)

Relatives and supporters, left, of Swift & Co. meat processing plant workers, face off with Immigration Police at the entrance of a Swift & Co. meat processing plant, during a raid in Greeley, Colo., Dec. 12, 2006. 

The Trump administration’s dramatic rollout of executive actions last week was the opening act of what is certain to be an aggressive crackdown on unauthorized immigration.

To make good on his campaign promise to deport millions of “criminal” undocumented immigrants, Trump issued an executive order that directs Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to broaden the definition of  “criminal” and focus deportation efforts not only on those who have been convicted, but also those who have been charged, or “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”—which could include immigration crimes like illegal entry. Trump is tripling the number of agents in the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations office and giving them broad power to ultimately decide who should be deported.

As Dara Lind explains at Vox, the Trump order “gives ICE agents a broader pool of immigrants to draw from for potential detention and deportation. And it signals that any immigrants caught up in the criminal justice system—whether or not they’re ultimately convicted of a crime—will be considered ‘criminal’ by this administration. If President Trump is going to find and deport two to three million criminal unauthorized immigrants, when nowhere near that number are actually convicted criminals, this is how he’d do it.”

While it remains to be seen exactly how Trump’s immigration policy plays out in reality, advocates for immigrant workers fear that much of their work helping the undocumented workforce push back against exploitation on the job could quickly unravel as these vulnerable workers, who often work in very-low-wage and dangerous industries, fall back into the shadows—thereby weakening standards for all low-wage workers.

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s, a central part of the federal government’s immigration enforcement strategy was to conduct high-profile worksite raids. But immigrant advocates fought hard to move away from that type of approach, and early in Barack Obama’s presidency, he shifted the enforcement focus away from mass workplace raids to “paper raids” that audited businesses, trying to find employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers.

The impact of worksite raids goes well beyond the disruption of particular businesses and workers’ and their families’ lives. Studies also show that they negatively affect working conditions across localities and industries. The undocumented disproportionately work in low-wage industries where wage theft (not being paid the minimum wage, overtime, or provided meal breaks), unsafe workplace conditions, and other labor law violations are commonplace—and become still more commonplace when raids are a constant threat. In mixed workplaces—where some immigrants are authorized and some are not—the employer can hold down standards for all, because authorized workers don’t want their co-workers deported.

Yet, many Republicans are eager to return to aggressive workplace enforcement and Trump’s executive orders make it clear that “everything is on the table in terms of deportations,” says Victor Narro, who researches issues concerning low-wage workers and immigrant communities at the UCLA Labor Center.

The threat of worksite raids has a chilling effect, Narro says. Undocumented workers are much less likely to file a wage theft complaint, talk to inspectors about workplace safety problems, or file a workers compensation claim if they are hurt on the job. The power dynamic between employers and employees also shifts if the boss feels more emboldened to call immigration officials when, for instance, his workers begin to organize a union or file complaints.

On the frontlines of the battle to protect undocumented workers are local advocacy groups who assist with organizing efforts and filing legal complaints. One of these groups is the Workers Defense Project, which has been a legal advocacy and organizing resource in the Texas construction industry, where more than more than 50 percent of workers have been undocumented since the early 2000s. The Project, which has helped lift safety and wage and hour standards for construction laborers throughout the state, sees renewed raids as a further challenge.

“First and foremost, we know when the lines between immigration enforcement and local law enforcement are blurred, that means workers are less likely to affirmatively make complaints” with labor agencies like the Department of Labor and OSHA, which are primarily complaint-driven, says Stephanie Gharakhanian, Employment and Legal Services Director at the Project. “The consequence is when companies are violating law, if immigrants aren’t stepping forward, it’s more likely that unscrupulous employers will be able to act with impunity.”

While Texas has a law that criminalizes wage theft, Gharakhanian says that many employers will call the police on workers who file complaints. If workers think that the local police will go after them for their immigration status, they are far less likely to file wage theft complaints. In recent years, the Workers Defense Project has had officials from the federal labor department’s wage and hour division and OSHA regularly come to its monthly membership meetings to outline how to file complaints and explain federal anti-retaliation protections that prohibit employers from using immigration status to threaten workers. It’s already an uphill battle for labor law enforcers to convince workers that they can come report violations without fear of retribution. But as Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric increases, “it’s going to be very difficult for those DOL officials to continue to do that outreach in our communities and say convincingly that we are here to defend your rights,” Gharakhanian says.

“What Trump is trying to do is embolden police officers to act as immigration officials. [Employers] know there is a lot of fear right now and we know that for many employers we deal with, they were already threatening immigrant workers, already telling workers they’d report them to ICE,” she says. “I think those threats will only become more common. We really worry we’re losing the political will and agency for local law enforcement to respond to those threats.” On Thursday, the Texas state Senate’s state affairs committee will consider a bill that would build on Trump’s executive order by requiring local jurisdictions to collaborate with ICE and would threaten legal action and withholding of state funding for local jurisdictions that don’t comply.

As the Payday Report reported last week, the immigration crackdown comes at an already-perilous time: More Latino workers died in 2015 than in any year since 2007. Workplace safety experts are concerned that rate may worsen if OSHA enforcement becomes less stringent. 

“What we’re seeing so far is really an enhanced level of fear, intimidation, and uncertainty in all low-wage and immigrant workplaces,” says Deborah Axt, co-executive director at the immigrant community-organizing group Make the Road New York. Labor advocates have made substantial strides in helping workers win better working conditions in many of the low-wage and marginal sectors of the New York City economy—the car washes, warehouses, nail salons, non-union construction outfits, and the back-of-the house in the city’s restaurants—where many undocumented workers struggle to make a living. “The progress that had been made in recent years helping workers feel there were protections against retaliation that would allow them to speak up and speak out is now being pretty rapidly undermined,” Axt says. 

Labor law experts expect Trump’s Department of Labor to de-emphasize targeted investigations in high-violation industries, which was a hallmark strategy of the Obama administration, and instead focus on helping companies comply with federal labor law. If so, the onus then falls on state agencies—most of which do not have robust enforcement operations. Even in New York state, one of the few remaining Democratic strongholds, the Labor Department is woefully understaffed. A 2014 audit by the state’s comptroller found that 17,000 wage-theft cases were still open from 2008. Yet investment in the department continues to decline each year. New York City just launched last year its own labor enforcement office, but it is still getting off the ground and its enforcement scope is significantly limited by state preemption.

“We have not yet seen a response at the city and state level to be able to come close to combatting the increased threats and intimidation and decreased support,” Axt says.

The onus then falls on community and labor groups like Make the Road and the Workers Defense Project to make up for the lack of enforcement. In the wake of Trump’s initiatives, they are scrambling come up with organizing strategies.

“There are two waves we’re feeling in our membership community. One is this fear and the other, from those who have a taste of organizing, is anger, and an unwillingness to hide in shadows,” Axt says. “We believe what needs to happen is get folks who are not hiding in shadows committed to build networks and get reliable information to people to stop the instinctive spread of fear, which is our enemy.”

In addition to mobilizing a grassroots coalition that includes local faith leaders, labor unions, and other community groups, immigrant advocates hope that business leaders in the restaurant, construction, agriculture, and other sectors that rely heavily on undocumented workers will speak out against aggressive deportations—especially in the workplace. Whether that happens remains to be seen. “We haven’t seen it yet but we’re assuming that the decent human beings running corporations will step in and say we have no interest in deporting 11 million people,” Axt says. “Right now the interests of low-wage workers align, to a certain degree, with corporations. Where that ends is employers’ economic self-interest in allowing workers to be terrified and allowing for that fear to escalate.” 

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