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Afton Branche Headshot

How Empowering Immigrant Workers Benefits Us All

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Last week, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and three co-sponsors introduced the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act (POWER Act), a small piece of legislation with the potential to bolster the enforcement of our labor standards in a big way.

First, the bill expands the U-visa--originally created for immigrants who are victims of criminal activities--to protect workers making workplace claims from violent and abusive employer retaliation tactics. This measure would better enable workers to speak out against exploitative employers who break the rules. Second, the legislation provides work authorization and temporary visas for detained workers who have been retaliated against by their employer for asserting their labor rights and they agree to cooperate in investigations against employers.

Without the full participation of immigrant workers, labor agencies and law enforcement agencies won't have the proper tools to uphold our labor standards--this harms all workers, regardless of citizenship status.

The POWER Act further sets out clear procedures for federal, state and local officials to follow during immigration enforcement actions. If the Department of Homeland Security begins enforcement at a workplace where there is a current labor dispute, immigrant workers cannot be deported until the agency notifies the relevant authorities so they have a chance to conduct an interview. Essentially, the measure would make sure that unscrupulous employers can't call DHS and have workers deported before they can participate in labor and employment law investigations.

This legislation comes on the heels of the Department of Labor's new wage and hour awareness campaign, an effort to work toward stricter enforcement of the regulations that make sure all workers in this country get their deserved wages. That's right: minimum wage and overtime laws, health and safety regulations apply to every worker in the country--including undocumented immigrants--and enforcing these laws protects American workers.

More than ever, undocumented and other vulnerable workers are being exploited by employers who find it too easy to ignore labor standards. A groundbreaking study of low-wage working conditions in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City revealed that our nation's labor and employment laws are routinely violated; workers in our largest cities are systematically being denied the right to take a meal breaks, earn overtime wages and other fundamental labor rights. And in a down economy, unscrupulous employers will increasingly look for ways to ignore basic labor standards and keep their workforce "cheap, easily intimidated and disposable."

The POWER Act would strengthen the ability of undocumented workers to speak out against these labor violations, and in doing so pressure employers to adhere to the labor standards that benefit all workers.

As the nation continues to debate the ins and outs of comprehensive immigration reform, let's not forget that a smaller, targeted measure like the POWER Act can be a critical tool to in the fight to fix our broken immigration system and uphold our nation's labor laws.