DHS will protect migrants who suffer labor abuses

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The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Friday a process by which migrant workers who witness or are victims of labor rights violations in their workplace can request protection from deportation.

The move was hailed by labor rights advocates, who say it will protect migrant workers who report abusive working conditions.

The announcement sets out guidelines on the agency's website so that protection applicants know what documentation they need to apply and how to proceed.

“Workers are sometimes afraid to report violations of the law by exploitative employers, or to cooperate in employment and labor standards investigations, because they fear removal or other immigration-related retaliation from an abusive employer.” noted the agency. “Labor and employment law enforcement agencies depend on the cooperation of these workers for their investigations.”

The new regulations allow migrant workers to request “deferred action”; that is, protection from being deported, if they participate in an investigation of labor rights violations in the workplace.

As part of the application, they would have to present evidence from an employment or labor agency, describing what the investigation consists of and why they need DHS support. They would also have to prove that they work for the company, as well as present documents proving their identity.

The applications would be reviewed by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security that handles immigration and citizenship-related petitions.

If approved, migrant workers who cooperate with a labor investigation can stay in the country for two years. They can also request authorization to work legally in the country during that time.

The reactions

“As immigration attorneys, we have seen many of our clients experience workplace abuse that they were afraid to report for fear of retaliation from unscrupulous employers,” said Ann Garcia, an attorney with the National Immigration Project.

In an October 2021 memo, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency would consider requests for deferred action protections for immigrants who assist in employment investigations, but did not set out a detailed policy on how this would be done. Since then, Garcia noted, some lawyers have submitted applications on behalf of their clients, but they were considered on a case-by-case basis.

Garcia, who trains other lawyers on some aspects of immigration law, said that now the formal process will allow him to more easily help other lawyers carry out procedures for their clients.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Union of Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores, also welcomed the announcement.

“Immigrant workers are critical to the success of our economy; yet they are among those who experience the most exploitation and abuse at work, and then suffer even more intimidation and retaliation when they stand up for their rights,” Appelbaum said.

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