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New immigration policy aims to protect undocumented immigrants against work exploitation

These new policies go beyond addressing injustices immigrants have been facing for almost 40 years. They aim to hold employers accountable and fight for safe work conditions.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki Holds Daily Briefing At White House
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks at a press briefing at the White House on September 24 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has done something that hasn’t been done by a presidential administration since 1986 — explicitly direct immigration agencies not to arrest undocumented immigrants who don’t pose a threat.

The first order came Sept. 30 when Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas introduced new immigration guidelines stating that the federal government would stop using its resources to seek and remove “those who do not pose a threat” and in accordance with the new guidelines, a person’s unlawful presence in the U.S. would no longer make them a priority for deportation starting Nov. 29.

Mayorkas kept the momentum going last week when he released a memo ordering enforcement agencies to stop immigration raids at worksites and instead shift their focus to pursuing employers who hired immigrants without proper work authorization. Most importantly, the latest order promises to offer deportation protections to immigrants who report abusive employers.

“[The announcement] by the Biden administration signals pivotal changes ahead that will make workplaces across the country safer and more equitable for all workers . . . ” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement. “This move will also ensure those immigrants working in schools, factories, meatpacking plants, hospitals, construction sites and other essential industries can do their jobs safely and speak out against unjust treatment without fearing employer intimidation, arrest or deportation.”

After failed attempts at reforms by the Reagan administration in 1986 that resulted in watered-down sanctions on exploitative employers, efforts to protect immigrants in good standing are long overdue.

These new policies aim to hold employers accountable and ensure fair pay and safe work conditions.

In November 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, legalizing most undocumented immigrants who had been living here since 1982 and for the first time in history, making it illegal for companies to employ unauthorized immigrants.

However, in an effort to gain support from the business community, the bill’s sponsors weakened sanctions on employers before the policy was enacted. In fact, all employers had to do to avoid penalties was convince investigators the documents employees presented were good enough to pass as fakes.

The Obama administration worked to put an end to workplace raids but did not offer deportation protections for workers who came forward and reported employers who abuse their power.

That is what makes these new guidelines so promising. They protect vulnerable workers against exploitative employers who withhold wages and threaten them with deportation if they speak up against unjust business practices.

Undocumented immigrants saw the worst of these type of injustices under the Trump administration when, in 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest immigration raid in Mississippi history and detained 680 undocumented workers at six chicken processing plants throughout the state in one day. Only four executives from those plants were indicted, which is a rare occurrence.

The latest data shows that only 11 individuals — and no companies — were prosecuted in just seven cases between April 2018 and March 2019, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The Oct. 12 Mayorkas memo asked ICE, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to develop and update policy options in the next 60 days that carry out change in enforcement priorities and make it easier for vulnerable workers to participate in labor investigations.

These protections could result in removal order delays or guarantees that undocumented victims or witnesses are not placed in immigration proceedings while an investigation or prosecution is pending.

With efficient execution, the Biden administration’s new immigration policies have a unique opportunity to bring fundamental change to how undocumented immigrants and every worker in America are treated.

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