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Sec. Hilda Solis Headshot

Universal Rights Extend to Alabama

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In a widely noticed human rights speech this month in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated U.S. policy on the fundamental rights of all people living in the world.

She said, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights ... rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them."

These basic rights extend to immigrants living in Alabama.

This April, Alabama legislators voted to make it a felony punishable by 1 to 10 years in prison for any undocumented immigrant living in the state to enter into a "business transaction." That means signing a lease for an apartment or paying a utility bill.

By June, Governor Robert Bentley had signed H.B. 56 into law.

Imprisoning those who seek shelter and basic sustenance runs counter to the universal rights of all free people. It's beneath the dignity of this great nation.

The Alabama measure is considered the strictest anti-immigrant bill to ever become law in the United States. It requires public schools--from elementary schools to public universities--to check the immigration status of those attempting to enroll. It prohibits landlords from renting to those without legal immigration status, or risk one year in prison for doing so. Anyone can be pulled over by the police who has a "reasonable suspicion" that they may not be in the U.S. legally.

As a result of this law, Alabamians are abandoning their jobs, agricultural fields are thinning, crops are going bad, businesses are closing, investors are looking elsewhere and students aren't showing up to school. Parents are packing up and fleeing the state, leaving behind their homes and the hope of a better life for their children.

Entrepreneurs and executives in the United States and abroad are thinking twice about bringing their business to Alabama--an enormous problem for a state and a nation seeking to create jobs and recover economically.

Some state legislators who voted for the law say they are now having second thoughts as the economic repercussions are being felt. However, until the law is changed or the courts strike it down, it's critical that all workers in Alabama know their federal rights.

Alabama's law invalidates employment contracts for undocumented workers who are guaranteed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour under the Fair Labor Standards Act. As a result, unscrupulous employers are taking advantage of Alabama's immigration law to deny workers the wages they have earned and, under federal law, continue to be legally owed.

Our federal government--under both Republican and Democratic presidents--has long held that all people working in this country have the right to the federal minimum wage, regardless of immigration status. And federal courts, including the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals covering Alabama, have all agreed. The Supreme Court decided 56 years ago that workers in America can't give up their right to a minimum wage, not even if they sign a contract saying that they will take less.

It's important for people in Alabama to understand that they still have a legal right to be paid for all hours they work. This includes waiting time, training time and work performed at home. Employers who violate this right are breaking federal law.

Tipped workers, like restaurant staff and parking valets, have to be paid at least $2.13 an hour plus enough tips to make the full minimum wage.

Farm workers must have their wages paid on time. Employers must provide their terms of employment in writing. And, if an employer provides housing or transportation, it must be safe.

Anyone who has worked in Alabama whose right to the federal minimum wage or overtime pay has been violated should call the U.S. Department of Labor at (205) 397-7114 or visit us at www.dol.gov.

The Obama administration is fighting Alabama's unconstitutional law in federal court. While some provisions of H.B. 56 have been temporarily blocked, the majority of the law remains in effect. Families across the country await the outcome. Many have left Alabama and will never return, but others are hopeful for a better future.

While we wait, the Department of Labor will vigorously protect the right of all workers in Alabama to have their federal right to a legal wage protected.

For as Secretary Clinton said, "When we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won't suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message."

Solis is the U.S. Secretary of Labor