Broken Immigration Systems Puts Workers’ Rights on ICE

A new report outlines how employers across the country are gaming today’s broken immigration system to exploit immigrant workers and evade both labor and immigration laws. The report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) uses two dozen case studies—including the recent action at Palermo’s Pizza—as examples of employers’ use of immigration enforcement or the threat of it to retaliate against workers who seek their basic workplace rights.   

NELP Executive Director Christine Owens says:

These abuses underscore how important it is that reform of our immigration laws ensures full protection of workers’ exercise of their rights.    

One of the key principles of the AFL-CIO’s comprehensive immigration reform’s blueprint is the coverage and enforcement of workplace rights for undocumented workers.  

At Palermo's Pizza, Workers’ Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights report relates that when workers there began to form a union, management used the threat of a reverification of their immigration status by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to intimidate the workers. Even though ICE told Palermo's it was not conducting an investigation.

One day after receiving notice that ICE was not pursuing enforcement action against it, Palermo's fired some 75 striking workers. Palermo's claimed that the firings were not motivated by anti-union animus but to comply with immigration law, a dubious claim in light of ICE’s retraction.

Palermo's Pizza workers, who have been on strike since June 1, are protesting unfair labor practices and demanding safe working conditions, recognition for their union and the reinstatement of 90 workers who were, according to a recent Worker Rights Consortium report, illegally fired for trying to organize a union.

Other examples of employer abuse in the report include:

  • A California employer falsely accuses a day laborer of robbery to avoid paying him wages owed. Police turn him over to immigration enforcement agents anyway.
  • An Ohio company, on the eve of an National Labor Relations Board decision finding it guilty of unfair labor practices, carries out its threat to “take out” union leadership by reverifying union leaders’ immigration status and work eligibility.
  • A Seattle employer threatens workers seeking to recover unpaid wages with deportation, and an immigration arrest follows.

Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who endorsed the NELP report, says:

We must never allow immigration status to be used as a weapon to silence the courageous individuals who stand up to wage theft and other labor abuses.  

The report’s co-author and NELP attorney Eunice Cho says, “Immigration reform done right can improve wages and working conditions for all workers.”

By enacting a new immigration policy that includes a broad path to citizenship, equal remedies for all workers subjected to illegal treatment at work, a stronger firewall between immigration and labor law enforcement and immigration protections for workers actively engaged in defending their labor rights, Congress can ensure that immigrant workers who stand up for their rights are protected.

California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski remarked:

All workers have a fundamental right to be treated with respect and dignity on the job, regardless of their immigration status. This report shows that far too often, unscrupulous employers are using threats and intimidation to exploit immigrant workers. It’s time to put sensible solutions in place at the federal and state levels to protect immigrant workers from workplace abuse.

Read the full report.