Homeland Security formalizes process that won immigrant workers a $3 million settlement

Unauthorized workers gain clear path to protections from employer retaliation

By: - January 18, 2023 5:47 am

Labor activists with Arriba Las Vegas in Las Vegas in July. (Photo by Jeniffer Solis)

In a victory for labor organizers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a streamlined process last week, giving workers a clear and accessible path to request protection from immigration-related intimidation by abusive employers.

Effective immediately, the new process will expedite requests for deportation relief —such as deferred action, parole, or stay of removal — for unauthorized workers who are victims of, or witnesses to, the violation of labor rights.

The announcement comes six months after labor officials published a list of requirements workers must meet to secure support from government officials when seeking deportation relief during investigations of unlawful conduct by employers.

Officials for the Department of Homeland Security said the agency’s practice of offering protections, on a case-by-case basis, to unauthorized workers directly increases the ability of labor and employment agencies to more fully investigate worksite violations and hold abusive employers accountable.

“Unscrupulous employers who prey on the vulnerability of noncitizen workers harm all workers and disadvantage businesses who play by the rules,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a release. “We will hold these predatory actors accountable by encouraging all workers to assert their rights, report violations they have suffered or observed, and cooperate in labor standards investigations.  Through these efforts, and with our labor agency partners, we will effectively protect the American labor market, the conditions of the American worksite, and the dignity of the workers who power our economy.”

Guidance and requirements for workers seeking protection from retaliation by abusive employers are available in English and Spanish, including factors immigration officials consider when deciding whether to assist workers seeking protections.

Immigration-based retaliation creates unfair labor market conditions and perpetuates unlawful acts by employers, including wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and chills workers’ ability to organize and collectively bargain, DHS noted in their policy announcement.

Labor organizers say the new expedited process is a clear acknowledgment by the federal government that immigration enforcement has historically interfered with labor law enforcement, and has played a role in protecting employers violating labor laws.

Caleb Soto, the workers’ rights director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the new formalized process will lead to stronger cases against wage theft by “unscrupulous” employers who try to intimidate unauthorized workers. 

One notable aspect of the new policy is that “state agencies can also request protections for witnesses and victims of labor abuses, so these crucial witnesses to their investigation can be protected,” Soto said.

“Another important aspect of this announcement is that these will be priority cases, so they will be processed in a central location, which we hope will help expedite the process further,” Soto said.

Labor advocates in Nevada have stepped up efforts to protect immigrant whistleblowers via deferred action in recent years, after workers experienced retaliation from Unforgettable Coatings —a painting company based in Las Vegas — for speaking out against repeated wage theft.

That push for immigrant labor protections by Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center and other labor organizers has already resulted in a massive wage theft settlement for Nevada workers.

Last week, hundreds of immigrant workers at Unforgettable Coatings won a settlement of $3.68 million for stolen wages, penalties, damages and interest, as a result of a federal Department of Labor investigation.

Workers began reporting wage theft and retaliation from the painting company to the US Department of Labor in 2019, before the case was brought to court by the Secretary of Labor in 2020.

Those workers have since aggressively lobbied the federal government for greater access to protections for immigrant workers involved in labor disputes.

Former employees of the company met with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last year to seek support after experiencing immigration-related intimidation from the Las Vegas painting company.

Rosario Ortiz, a former employee of Unforgettable Coatings, Inc. has been a leading voice to advocate for protections for immigrant workers in Las Vegas and across the country.  

“My coworkers and I have been fighting our case for more than  three years, facing threats and intimidation on top of wage theft and health and safety risks as workers of Unforgettable Coatings Inc.,” Ortiz said in his native Spanish, during a press conference. 

Ortiz said the Department of Labor helped grant him deferred action as a key witness in their labor rights investigation, adding that his advocacy is his attempt to get other workers the protections he’s now receiving.

“I feel proud of my fellow workers across the country who have fought to open this path, so other workers facing similar labor abuses can seek the protections we’ve won, like deferred action,” Ortiz said.

Bliss Requa-Trautz, the director of Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, said the successful lawsuit and resulting federal policy will be a case study for workers facing similar retaliation across the country.

“We know and acknowledge these protections do not mean workers will be free from retaliation when they report abuse or organize on their job site,” Requa-Trautz said. “But these protections when exercised mean workers won’t be deported for exercising their protected rights to a minimum wage, safe working conditions, freedom from discrimination, and the freedom to organize.”

 

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.

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