Hundreds of workers rallied in Manhattan, New York, on Oct. 1 to call on DHS to protect undocumented workers who report workplace abuse from the threat of deportation. (Courtesy of National Day Laborer Organizing Network)

The Department of Labor (DOL) announced a new workers’ rights policy in July that will help immigrant workers get prosecutorial discretion if they file work-related complaints. A departure from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) long history of targeting undocumented whistleblowers for deportation after they shared accounts of wage theft and worker abuse, this new policy would potentially grant workers deferred action for two years, which would delay their deportation and grant work authorization. Workers could then reapply after two years. 

Jessica Bansal, legal director of Unemployed Workers United, said the goal of these efforts is to “remove the fear of retaliation.”

“Tons of immigrant workers don’t speak up about really egregious labor rights abuses because they’re scared that their employer will retaliate against them and that they could face deportation. So the goal is to really create a climate where that’s not a fear that people have to have,” Bansal said.

However, DHS has yet to implement DOL’s new policy or release guidelines for adhering to it. Immigration and workers’ rights advocates who pushed for the DOL to implement this policy in the first place say time is of the essence for DHS to release these guidelines to provide  necessary and life-saving protections for migrant workers.

“Workers like me kept our country running during the pandemic and continue to contribute to our economy every day, yet we don’t have the right to speak up for basic respect at work like other workers do,” said Rosario Ortiz, a worker and member of the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center in Nevada, in a press release. “If an employer steals our wages or harasses us, we just have to take it. It’s wrong to force workers to live in fear like this.”

Ortiz is a former employee of Unforgettable Coatings, a Las Vegas-based company that was under investigation for wage theft by the DOL in 2020. Under the new federal guidance, the DOL helped secure deferred action for Ortiz as a key witness in their labor rights investigation. According to Ortiz, as migrants arrive in New York City at the behest of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, it’s even more important for them to stand up for their workplace rights.

“President [Joe] Biden and Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas have the power to protect us. It’s time for them to use it,” Ortiz said.

On Oct. 1, hundreds of workers, including Ortiz, rallied in Manhattan with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to call on DHS to implement guidelines for DOL’s workers’ rights policy. DOL announced its guidance on July 6, 2022, but DHS has yet to provide further details. 

“At a time when politicians around the country are doing everything they can to dehumanize migrant workers, President Biden must stand up for our humanity by making sure that we can access the most basic rights at work without fear,” said Anibal T., a worker and member with the Laundry Workers Center who attended the rally, in a press release. “President Biden ran on a promise to turn the page, and by declaring that deportation couldn’t be used as a weapon to silence workers like us, he took a strong first step. Now it’s time to finish the job and start putting words into action.”

According to Bansal, fear of deportation is a common reason immigrant workers don’t want to come forward about work-related complaints. 

“We hear that a lot—employers specifically saying to workers that you can’t complain because you could be deported,” said Bansal. “Immigrant workers need to have this kind of protection to be able to do real labor rights enforcement. But we really need the Department of Homeland Security to do their part to make people feel comfortable applying and really make it a meaningful resource or protection for workers.”

To report a workplace labor dispute, the DOL policy suggests workers write to a specific email they have listed on their website requesting a letter of support from the DOL telling DHS to grant prosecutorial discretion. These requests will then be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Bansal said workers are also asking DHS to consider granting undocumented workers parole, which would similarly protect them from deportation and potentially allow them to eventually adjust their immigration status. 

“It’s really past time for the Department of Homeland Security to do their part,” said Bansal. “We’re seeing tons of federal money coming down and creating new jobs, and it’s really important that they be good jobs. In order for them to be good jobs, it’s really important that employers not divide their workers by abusing them.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...