04/06/2012 08:37 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

Could Immigration Reform Give Latina Workers A Voice Against Exploitation

With so much of the current debate around immigration caught up in the heated rhetoric of an upcoming Presidential election year, it is easy to gloss over the fact that these barbs being thrown around are about real people. The most at risk, exploited and vulnerable populations caught in this current debate are Latina workers. Immigration reform while no silver bullet would go a long way to giving both legal and undocumented Latina workers a voice to speak out against exploitation in the workplace.

A recent report released by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) as part of a campaign to empower and protect Latinas in the workplace underscores the need for CIR to protect one of the most at risk segments in our labor market. To help contextualize exactly how an overhaul of our immigration system would affect this population it often helps to hear the stories of those currently here living in the shadows and what the process of legalization would give them in terms of worker protection and better pay.

Reverend Mary Moreno-Richardson, Coordinator for Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul's Cathedral noted that many women whether entering the country or currently here without documentation have "been raped, they've been threatened, they've been much abuse."

The fact is that many women coming to the United States often face brutal hardship, they are over-represented in low-wage job sectors, and are often exploited for their labor. They often face issues of wage theft, are often paid less than minimum wage, are refused overtime pay and are forced by employers to work off the clock.

Immigration is an incredibly complex issue, but at its heart it is a labor issue. Part of the reason that these workers face such exploitation is due to the fact that an unknown segment of this population is undocumented. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes undocumented immigrants in their labor surveys, they do not separately identify them in the data they present. According to a technical note in the BLS report respondents who classify themselves as Foreign Born include "legally admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants." While this report does shine some light on the horrible atrocities occurring here in the United States, it is very likely that the numbers presented are actually much higher as undocumented immigrants are notoriously hard to include in surveys of this sort.

Hector Sanchez, executive director of LCLAA sees an overhaul of our immigration system as a way to offer some protection to this often overlooked segment of our labor force. "To break the cycle of oppression and exploitation, workers must feel free to raise issues and stand up against abuses in the workplace. Labor protections are irrelevant if workers don't know about them and if language barriers, fear, and immigration status creates an environment where workers have to choose between abuse and a pay check to provide for their families."

This report highlights an important fact often overlooked by many in our society: Latinas workers are among the most exploited segment of our labor force; both documented and undocumented face tremendous hardships working in our country. While there are certainly segments of our electorate and political establishment who would rather not deal with these issues, the fact remains this is something that speaks volumes about our society. This is not just an issue of documented and admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants. Having an open and honest conversation about how reforming our immigration system can provide those without recourse an ability to stand up for their rights is a worthwhile one, and may be the first best step on a pathway to greater equity for all workers.