Department of Labor lays out process to support immigrant whistleblowers

New policy could make undocumented immigrants more willing to participate in workplace investigations

Immigrant laborers have a new tool at their disposal to blunt the threat of detention or deportation when they come forward to denounce abusive employers.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor unveiled a policy that allows immigrant workers facing exploitation or abuse at work to ask the Department to intercede on their behalf with immigration authorities. That intervention – in the form of a “statement” of support – could help workers avoid prosecution for working or living in the U.S. illegally.

In a document posted on Wednesday, the Department explained that undocumented immigrant workers are “often reluctant to report violations, engage with government enforcement agencies, or otherwise exercise their rights,” for fear that doing so could put them in trouble. By giving them a mechanism to seek “prosecutorial discretion” from immigration authorities, the government hopes more workers will participate in investigations and help it hold unscrupulous employers accountable.

Whether workers are able to benefit from prosecutorial discretion or not remains entirely in the hands of immigration authorities in the Department of Homeland Security.

In a press conference held Thursday, immigrant advocates said that the new policy could make a difference in a place like Gainesville, Georgia, where a sizable undocumented workforce helps power the local, nation-leading poultry industry.

In January 2021, Gainesville made national news when a preventable liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant claimed the lives of six workers, most of whom had immigrant backgrounds.

On the day of the leak, as law enforcement and first responders rushed to the scene, “our folks ran for their lives not just because … it was impossible to breathe, but too because they were afraid in an instance like that, that they were going to be deported,” said Maria del Rosario Palacios, a former poultry worker and executive director of GA Familias Unidas, a mutual-aid group.

In the ensuing investigation, Palacios said some workers were granted protections from immigration enforcement actions on a case-by-case basis. With the new Department of Labor policy posted this week, workers would be able to seek the Department’s support to proactively ask for those protections, and lower the risk of immigration-based retaliation were they to come forward with labor complaints.

For Palacios, that represents a “step in the right direction … to help our folks come out of the shadows so that they’re not further exploited [and] taken advantage of.”

Last fall, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlined new enforcement priorities aiming to target employers that exploit undocumented immigrants, rather than immigrant workers themselves.

“We can most effectively protect the American labor market, the conditions of the American worksite, and the dignity of the individual by focusing our worksite enforcement efforts on unscrupulous employers,” he wrote at the time in a memo.

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