New Report Exposes How Employers Take Advantage of Broken Immigration System to Exploit Workers


Study details how employers use immigration enforcement to retaliate against workers, and points to opportunities for reform in current immigration debate.

 New York—With immigration reform under serious consideration in Congress, a report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project exposes how current immigration policies intended to stop employers from hiring undocumented workers have instead allowed unscrupulous employers to evade both immigration and labor laws.

 Through nearly two-dozen case studies, the report paints a shocking picture of how employers use immigration enforcement, or the threat of it, to retaliate against workers who seek to exercise their basic workplace rights. In many instances, workers who tried to collect unpaid wages, report safety violations, escape abuse by their employers, or organize in the workplace were detained and deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with little recourse for their labor rights.

 Former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis endorsed the findings of the report. “As U.S. labor secretary, my top priority was to protect the labor rights of all workers, including those seeking a path to citizenship,” Solis said. “We must never allow immigration status to be used as a weapon to silence the courageous individuals who stand up against wage theft and other labor abuses. While I’m proud of the protections that the Labor Department has put in place for immigrant workers, there is still more to do. The protections we pioneered at the Labor Department need to be included as part of immigration reform.”

 The report release comes just days after The New York Times editorialized that stronger protections against the exploitation and abuse of immigrant workers need to be a bigger part of the immigration reform discussion. “Such protections, essential to any reform plan, would help rid the system of bottom-feeding employers who hire and underpay and otherwise exploit cheap immigrant labor, dragging down wages and workplace standards for everyone,” the Times argued. 

 “An immigration enforcement scheme designed to prevent the hiring of undocumented workers has instead given unscrupulous employers a potent weapon to deter immigrant workers from asserting their workplace rights and retaliate against those who do so,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “These abuses underscore how important it is that reform of our immigration laws ensures full protection of workers’ exercise of their rights.”

 The report, entitled “Workers’ Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights,” draws on 22 case studies from around the country, including California, Ohio, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, and New York, representing a range of industries, including construction, day labor, farm work, restaurant, food service, and food processing. Typical examples of employer abuse of the immigration enforcement system include the following:

 ·         A California employer falsely accuses a day laborer of robbery to avoid paying him wages owed. Police turn him over to immigration enforcement agents anyway.

 ·         An Ohio company, on the eve of an NLRB decision finding it guilty of unfair labor practices, carries out its threat to “take out” union leadership by re-verifying union leaders’ immigration status and work eligibility.

 ·         A Seattle employer threatens workers seeking to recover unpaid wages with deportation, and an immigration arrest follows.

 The ramp-up in immigration enforcement in recent years has given unscrupulous employers more tools to use against immigrant workers who assert their labor rights, according to the report. More local police departments have gotten pulled into immigration enforcement, and worksite immigration audits have increased. Although the Obama administration has taken some steps to prevent immigration status–related retaliation—for example, by protecting immigrants who are the victims of crimes in the workplace, exercising prosecutorial discretion in limited cases involving labor disputes, and limiting ICE enforcement actions where labor  investigations are pending—they are not enough.  

 “Bad employers have repeatedly misused the immigration enforcement system to gain the upper hand in an already unfair situation,” said Rebecca Smith, an attorney with NELP and a co-author of the report. “In such a climate of fear, no one is willing to stand up and blow the whistle on terrible workplace abuses. It’s a downward spiral that even drags down law-abiding employers, who are forced to compete with illegal practices. In the end, all low-wage workers suffer as a result,” said Smith.

 Immigration reform, however, presents new opportunities to protect immigrant workers.

 “By enacting a new immigration policy that includes a broad path to citizenship, equal remedies for all workers subjected to illegal treatment at work, a stronger firewall between immigration and labor law enforcement, and immigration protections for workers actively engaged in defending their labor rights, Congress and the White House can ensure that immigrant workers who stand up for their rights are protected,” said NELP attorney Eunice Cho, also a co-author of the report. “Immigration reform, done right, can ensure improved wages and working conditions for all workers,” said Cho.


Contact: Danny Massey, (646) 200-5323,

 NELP’s new report, “Workers’ Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights,” is available for download here:

 The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more information about NELP, visit