The Biden administration Tuesday ordered a halt to large-scale immigration arrests at job sites, and said it is planning a new enforcement strategy to more effectively target employers who pay substandard wages and engage in exploitative labor practices.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas directed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to take actions to promote a fair labor market by supporting more effective enforcement of wage protections, workplace safety, labor rights, and other employment laws and standards.
“The Department of Homeland Security has a critical role to ensure our nation’s workplaces comply with our laws,” said Mayorkas. “We will not tolerate unscrupulous employers who exploit unauthorized workers, conduct illegal activities, or impose unsafe working conditions. Employers engaged in illegal acts compel the focus of our enforcement resources. By adopting policies that focus on the most unscrupulous employers, we will protect workers as well as legitimate American businesses.”
In accordance with a memorandum issued by Mayorkas on October 12, ICE, CBP, and USCIS will develop and update policies to enhance the department’s impact in supporting the enforcement of employment and labor standards.
The agencies must also develop strategies for prioritizing workplace enforcement against unscrupulous employers and, through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, facilitate the participation of vulnerable workers in labor standards investigations.
The memorandum also establishes an end to mass worksite enforcement operations. Under the previous administration, these resource-intensive operations resulted in the simultaneous arrest of hundreds of workers and were used as a tool by exploitative employers to suppress and retaliate against workers’ assertion of labor laws.
Lastly, the memorandum calls for broader and deeper mechanisms for coordination with interagency partners to enforce worker protections.
Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, responded to the DHS memo outlining the agency’s Role in Supporting Enforcement of Employment and Labor Standards.
“For decades, unscrupulous employers have exploited immigrant workers using the threat of deportation. These threats have disproportionately harmed low-wage workers especially in industries known for labor abuses like meat processing and agriculture,” said Stewart. “Most often, workers are forced to remain silent rather than face immigration-based retaliation by employers or ICE.
“We welcome today’s long-overdue announcement. Worksite raids only serve to terrorize immigrant communities and workers, making them more susceptible to being exploited by employers,” said Stewart. “Trump-era worksite raids in the deep South targeted meatpacking workers who were victims of wage theft and sexual harassment, lowering standards for all workers in the region. Raids are cruel and unconstitutional, and do not address any real problems associated with the nation’s immigration system.
“By ending worksite enforcement and protecting immigrant whistleblowers, today’s directive is an important step in finally addressing this long pattern of worker exploitation,” said Stewart. “It is now important that the labor and immigration agencies craft clear and unequivocal guidelines for how immigrant workers can access these protections. The government must also ensure victims of past raids have access to these protections and other relief.”
“Mass arrest operations by ICE have been used primarily against industries that employ large numbers of immigrants, such as meatpacking but they punish vulnerable workers, sow fear in immigrant communities and rarely result in consequences for employers,” said Lisa McCormick, a Democratic immigrant advocate who has been fighting for release of migrant detainees in New Jersey.
A coalition of advocates is shining a light on the stories of undocumented immigrants who suffered while imprisoned in New Jersey’s immigration detention facilities, part of an effort to urge support for ending immigrant detainee transfers and for an overhaul for federal immigration laws.
A Bergen County detainee who was woken up in the middle of the night to be flown to Arizona. A Haitian migrant who was transferred from detention center to detention center seven times over four years. An Essex County resident who was detained while his wife was pregnant, and didn’t meet his child for two years.
“We have seen how families have been ripped apart, especially in the last few months once Essex County announced they would be depopulating their ICE unit,” said Jackie Zapata with Friends First of NJ & NY. “Our friends who called New Jersey their home were transferred to faraway states, far away from their communities, families, and legal resources.”
Though Essex County has emptied its jail of detainees and Hudson County said it intends to do the same, there are no similar plans for Bergen County Jail, which remains home to 25 immigrant detainees largely from New York.
Bergen County has an indefinite contract that brings in $120 per detainee daily from the federal government, but McCormick said that officials in the Democratic county “should not accept blood money.”