WASHINGTON -- An undocumented worker who wound up in deportation proceedings after he accused his employer of wage theft has been granted permission to work temporarily in the United States, dramatically changing a case that had outraged advocates for immigrant workers. He's also been designated the victim of a crime, making it possible for him to apply for a rare work visa.
Antonio Vanegas, 27, took part in a strike by food court workers at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Even though his immigration status hadn't been an issue previously, when Vanegas returned to work after the strike he was told there was a problem with his identification card. He was then detained for four days by immigration officials.
Although it appeared Vanegas would be deported, the Department of Homeland Security has instead granted Vanegas authorization to work in the U.S. until November 2014. The Labor Department has also certified Vanegas' petition to DHS for a U visa, a small class of visas that grants up to four years of work eligibility to victims of serious crimes.
The reprieve from deportation is just the latest twist in Vanegas' peculiar immigration saga. Despite his undocumented status, the Guatemala native had spent years working in a federal building that's home to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that enforces immigration and trade law. Vanegas said he was serving pitas on a daily basis to the agency's employees.
Earlier this year, Vanegas told HuffPost that he felt he was being punished for speaking out about alleged labor abuses in a federal building. But now, he says, the recent steps taken by the Labor Department have restored his faith in the process.
"It's changed significantly," Vanegas said in Spanish through an interpreter. "Now I see it's a country of laws. Even though folks like me are subject to labor abuses, that shouldn't discourage us from speaking up."
Vanegas is part of a union-backed labor group called Good Jobs Nation, which has been drawing attention to the low-wage jobs underwritten by federal contracts, particularly in Washington, D.C. Supported by the Change to Win labor federation, the group has organized a series of strikes and protests at the Reagan Building, as well as at the Smithsonian. The group has also called upon President Barack Obama to sign an executive order guaranteeing a living wage for workers under federal contracts.
Vanegas worked in the Reagan Building food court at a shop called Quick Pita. In a complaint submitted by his lawyer to the Labor Department, Vanegas said he was often paid under the table and below the legal minimum wage. During his first year, he received $6.50 per hour; during his second, $7 per hour, he said. The minimum wage in Washington is $8.25. Vanegas also claimed he regularly worked more than 40 hours per week -- sometimes up to 70 -- but didn't receive overtime pay as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
An organizer with Good Jobs Nation schooled Vanegas on labor law earlier this year, and the immigrant took part in a one-day strike and protest in May. At the demonstration, Vanegas publicly accused his employer of breaking the law. He was featured in a story in In These Times magazine shortly before his immigration troubles began.
Generally speaking, it's rare that someone would gain certification for a U visa in a case of alleged wage theft. Immigration officials issue only 10,000 such visas each year, and they require an approved agency like the Labor Department to show a petitioner was the victim of a qualifying crime. The U visa is intended, in part, to allay fears that an undocumented immigrant may have about speaking up about a crime because of their immigration status, and is more frequently used in cases involving violent crimes or human trafficking.
In the workplace, however, undocumented employees are often afraid to come forward with claims of wage theft for similar reasons. Vanegas' troubles appeared to be a cautionary tale for would-be whistleblowers, until the recent move by the Labor Department, which should come as welcome news to advocacy groups that argue wage theft is a widespread and serious crime.
The specific criminal act that qualified Vanegas was "witness tampering," as Vanegas was allegedly threatened by his employer with deportation if he continued to take part in strikes and protests. The Labor Department has opened an investigation into Vanegas and his co-workers' allegations of wage theft and retaliation. If the allegations hold up, Vanegas' testimony could be critical in securing back wages and other penalties against the employers.
A Labor Department spokesperson said the agency could not comment on a particular U visa request due to confidentiality rules.
Although the Labor Department has certified Vanegas' request, the decision to grant the visa is ultimately up to DHS. U visas require a demonstration of physical or mental abuse, so Vanegas' lawyers may have to prove that he suffered psychologically due to his employer's alleged actions.
"Bosses take advantage of people's immigration status to deny them what they legally should be earning," Vanegas said. "They use their immigration status as leverage."
The Labor Department's investigation into the workers' claims is still ongoing, and Quick Pita has not responded to requests for comment on Vanegas' case.