Migrants exploited at work could receive more deportation relief

Georgia farmworkers and poultry workers are among those who could benefit from new U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy.

Undocumented workers caught up in exploitative labor arrangements will have access to a streamlined process to request protection from deportation, according to guidance unveiled Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

With that new policy, the Biden administration hopes to encourage migrant workers who experience or witness labor abuses to come forward and report their employers.

“Unscrupulous employers who prey on the vulnerability of noncitizen workers harm all workers and disadvantage businesses who play by the rules,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement. “We will hold these predatory actors accountable by encouraging all workers to assert their rights.”

Immigrant advocates say lack of legal status has historically prevented many workers from cooperating with law enforcement investigations into labor abuses. The latest move from DHS would diffuse the chilling prospect of “immigration-related retaliation,” the agency said.

Among those who could benefit from a more efficient process to seek deportation relief, known as “deferred action,” are Georgia farmworkers who experience or witness labor abuses of the kind unveiled roughly a year ago by Operation Blooming Onion. In that case, investigators uncovered a “modern-day slavery” operation that they say trapped workers from Latin America in “brutal” and “inhumane” conditions.

Immigrant and labor advocates in the region welcomed the Biden administration’s announcement.

Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project said, “Workers in the Deep South face additional risks due to the region’s lack of state-based labor protections. … When immigrant workers can raise complaints and organize without fear of retaliation, labor standards rise for all workers.”

The new DHS policy follows other initiatives rolled out by the Biden administration to empower vulnerable migrant workers. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor laid out its own process to support immigrant whistleblowers and encourage participation in workplace investigations.

On Friday, immigrant advocates said making it easier for undocumented workers to come forward could make a significant different in a city like Gainesville, 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 a 2022 online forum.

In the ensuing investigation, Palacios said some workers were granted protections from immigration enforcement actions on a case-by-case basis.

The new DHS policy formalizes and streamlines the process to seek relief, a “long-awaited development,” said Palacios on Friday.

The Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit based in Atlanta, issued a statement saying, ”We know that every day, immigrant workers risk their lives to put food on our tables, clean and build our homes, and so much more. ... We must do everything in our power to ensure that employers who ... are abusing workers are held accountable. This requires that there be set protections for immigrant workers who experience workplace violations.”

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