A Pathway to Citizenship Should Create a Pathway to Workplace Protections

The nexus between a pathway to citizenship and workplace protections must not be through an employment verification system. This did not work in 1986 with IRCA's employer sanction laws and it will not work today.
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The current Senate immigration reform bill makes some great strides to protect workers. Yet, it falls dramatically short on enforcement. While the bill allocates up to $6.5 billion on border enforcement, it allocates just $1 billion to interior enforcement -- most of which will likely go to the controversial E-Verify program. In other words, funding for border security will be over six times the funding for worker protections. On May Day, I'd like to put forth that a pathway to citizenship should go hand in hand with a pathway to a workplace environment free of unlawful workplace violations.

As I have written, we know that immigration reform alone will not end workplace violations. UCLA Labor Center's research has shown that low-wage workers in three of the nation's largest cities lose $56 million per week in wage theft violations. If we do not take the right steps, a pathway to citizenship will continue to subsidize this national wage theft crisis.

In 1986, rather than address the issue of workplace protections directly in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Congress relied anti-discrimination provisions in the bill as well as employer sanction laws. The idea was that the anti-discrimination provisions would protect workers on the front end, particularly from hiring discrimination based on immigration status or national origin, document abuse, and retaliation/intimidation. On the back end, Congress would rely on federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Department of Labor (DOL), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce labor laws. On the employer side, employer sanction laws would deter employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This historical decision created the reality we face today. Rather than protect workers, policies to stop employers from hiring undocumented workers created a system where unscrupulous employers use the threat of deportation to keep wages artificially low and working conditions unsafe. Workers do not stand up for their rights for fear that their employers will retaliate by calling the police, which under the Secure Communities Program subjects them to immediate removal proceedings, or by calling immigration officials directly. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project confirms this trend. Meanwhile, enforcement of labor laws took a nosedive. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of inspectors enforcing federal minimum wage and overtime laws declined by 31 percent, even as the labor force grew by 52 percent.

The consequence is the wage theft crisis that is plaguing America's cities today. This reality is so widespread that it is not limited to the "underground economy" or to a few "bad apples." In fact, our research found that both large and small employers violate the law, particularly in retail, residential construction and home health care industries, which are at the core of urban economies. This affects both immigrant and nonimmigrant workers. With wages artificially low, it is impossible for U.S. workers to compete.

The Senate bill that the "Gang of Eight" unveiled this month makes some important steps to protect workers. It increases legal protections for immigrant workers who are wrongfully terminated or who experience significant workplace abuse. The bill also provides legal remedies for immigrant workers who are terminated in violation of labor laws, and it provides for U-visa relief for whistleblowers who experience serious workplace abuse, exploitation or retaliation. These are all steps in the right direction.

But as we know all too well, labor protection laws on the books are only as good as their enforcement. The Senate bill allocates up to $6.5 billion to the the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security for border security in the way of increased personnel, infrastructure, technology, and other resources. Yet, the bill allocates an amount of $1 billion under the Interior Enforcement title, which includes E-Verify and worker protections. Congress will likely earmark most of that amount to create and implement the E-Verify program. This means funding for border security will be over six times the possible funding for worker protections. We need to change this short sighted approach, or face reliving the reality of post-IRCA workplace conditions on a much wider scale.

In California, the California Labor Federation and immigrant worker advocates are working together to support legislation that would prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who try to protect their rights. Congressional leaders need to follow the example of this California policy effort and engage in a similar proactive effort to protect workers on a national scale.

The nexus between a pathway to citizenship and workplace protections must not be through an employment verification system. This did not work in 1986 with IRCA's employer sanction laws and it will not work today. Instead, the nexus should be in increased workplace protections, especially against retaliation, and Congress should commit resources to ensure that America's workers -- U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike -- can work free from exploitation.

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