WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump claims his crackdown on undocumented workers will raise wages and improve jobs for all Americans. But there’s at least one way it’s already having the opposite effect.
By ramping up deportations, the Trump administration is making immigrant workers less likely to come forward when they’ve been cheated out of wages or put in harm’s way on the job. Worker advocates and attorneys fear that Trump’s policies will ultimately give leverage to abusive employers and drive down standards for all workers in industries that rely on immigrant labor.
“There’s a lot of fear out there, and it’s driving workers further underground,” said Christopher Williams, a Chicago attorney who handles wage theft cases involving immigrants. “I honestly think it’s creating an incentive to hire more undocumented workers, because now they’re even more vulnerable to being exploited.”
The muzzling of undocumented workers has been a problem for decades. Under President Barack Obama, who carried out a record-breaking number of deportations, many workers were afraid to file wage complaints or report workplace hazards for fear that doing so would backfire on them. It is not uncommon for unscrupulous bosses to threaten to report workers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or simply fire them in retaliation.
That has provided one of the leading arguments for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to legal status: If workers are brought out of the shadows, they will be less fearful of asserting their workplace rights, helping to level the playing field between good employers and bad ones.
But undocumented workers now face what’s quickly shaping up to be the most unforgiving environment in years. As Republicans pursue a plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration has broadened the criteria for who should be considered for deportation. Immigrant rights advocates and lawyers have described the uptick in enforcement in recent weeks as unprecedented.
Even in times of more relaxed enforcement, many immigrants are reluctant to put their names on formal complaints against their employers, said Antonio Vanegas, a Guatemala native. Vanegas successfully recouped back pay from his employer, a pita shop in Washington, D.C., after filing wage theft allegations in 2013 with the help of a union-backed worker group, Good Jobs Nation. As The Huffington Post reported at the time, immigration agents detained Vanegas, but he later secured a work visa as the victim of a crime.
“At first I was terrified,” Vanegas said of filing his complaint. “But once I started to know my rights … I felt empowered.” He said there’s a simple reason many exploited workers never step forward: “They have mouths to feed.”
“I honestly think it’s creating an incentive to hire more undocumented workers, because now they’re even more vulnerable to being exploited.”
The White House says it is focusing detainment efforts on dangerous criminals, though immigrant advocates said many people without criminal records have been picked up, too. “We’re getting them out, and that’s what I said I would do,” Trump said recently. The reports of a surge in detentions have made many undocumented immigrants too skittish to be out in public.
And that fear is already spilling onto work sites, said Sam Robles, a spokeswoman for the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit that represents immigrant construction workers in Texas. Robles’ group has been teaching workers how to respond if immigration agents show up at work and seek to detain them.
“These are difficult conversations to have,” Robles said. “These folks already have dangerous, hard jobs. When you have an increase in raids or deportations, they are even more afraid. I’ve seen the families. They are really tired and concerned.”
A study that Robles’ group did with the University of Texas at Austin found that roughly half of construction workers in the state are undocumented, making them less likely than other workers to report abusive practices. According to the study, a construction worker dies every three days in Texas, and nearly 1 in 4 has been a victim of wage theft. Many construction workers speak little or no English and aren’t aware of their legal rights.
Labor Department investigators do not ask workers their immigration status when they look into allegations of minimum wage or safety violations, and undocumented workers are entitled to the same workplace protections as U.S. citizens. Those policies are meant to reassure workers who may be reluctant to approach federal officials of any kind.
But the skepticism can be hard to overcome. Bloomberg BNA reported this week that some workers are declining back pay checks from the Labor Department, for fear their contact with the government could lead to deportation.
“It just means more workers will get hurt and companies will get away with cutting corners.”
Many workers are even more afraid of their employers than they are of the government, and would rather swallow their lost wages than risk their jobs. Debbie Berkowitz, a former policy adviser at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said she believes injury rates are much higher in the poultry processing industry than employers report to the government. That’s because the industry’s largely immigrant workforce is understandably afraid to speak up about injuries, she said.
“This job, even though it doesn’t always put food on the table, is what prevents all these workers from really falling into complete poverty,” said Berkowitz, now a safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers. “And these industries know that.”
If workers are even more afraid to come forward during the Trump era, she added, “It just means more workers will get hurt and companies will get away with cutting corners.”
Worker advocates are concerned that cutting corners will become easier under Trump. Career civil servants in the federal government investigate companies for violations, but political appointees atop agencies like the Labor Department set the priorities. Notably, since Trump took office, the Labor Department has stopped issuing press releases detailing wage and safety investigations.
Trump and Republican lawmakers have made clear they intend to usher in a laissez-faire business environment. The GOP-led Congress has already used an arcane maneuver to undo more than a dozen regulations issued by the Obama administration. One of those rules would have made it harder for companies to secure federal contracts after breaking labor law, and another would have made employers keep an ongoing record of workplace injuries to better identify dangers.
Combined with a crackdown on immigrants, scaling back enforcement in dangerous industries like poultry processing and construction would give employers even less to worry about, according to Berkowitz.
“Why would employers not gamble that they won’t be inspected?” she said. “Or maybe they’ll just forget that OSHA exists.”
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