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‘Mayday!’ A Crisis Call for Undocumented Workers

Immigrant workers

SOURCE: AP/Lynne Sladky

Farmworkers pick beans in a field on November 18, 2013, in Florida City, Florida.

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May 1, or May Day—also known as International Workers Day—honors the sacrifices that workers have made throughout history to secure hard-won rights. As the list of these rights grows increasingly robust, however, it is important that we do not take the most basic ones for granted.

For 5.2 percent of the U.S. workforce—the 8 million undocumented immigrant workers—securing fundamental protections is a daily struggle. Employee-employer relationships are drastically different for undocumented immigrants, who show up for work day after day knowing that they can be taken advantage of due to their legal status. But such violations of basic rights do not have to be the status quo.

In honor of the undocumented workers who have sacrificed so much to provide for their families, let’s re-examine the immigration reform bill currently awaiting action in the House of Representatives on this May Day. The reforms proposed in S. 744—the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which passed the Senate in June 2013—would alleviate the vulnerability of undocumented workers, as well as benefit our workforce, economy, and commitment to the American Dream.

Providing legal status and earned citizenship, as outlined in the bill, are crucial to resolving the injustices that undocumented workers face. The enforcement of U.S. labor and employment laws is primarily triggered when employees file official complaints against employer malpractice. Many unauthorized immigrants, however, fear coming forward because of their legal status—especially when employers threaten them with deportation if they attempt to exercise their workplace rights. According to a National Employment Law Project study on low-wage industries characterized by vulnerable and undocumented laborers in the country’s three largest cities, 43 percent of those who filed complaints experienced illegal retaliation such as employers calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials to report the employee’s status.

Without fear of legal penalty, unscrupulous employers are empowered to commit a litany of infractions. The same study found that 68 percent of workers experienced serious wage violations, 76 percent were undercompensated or not compensated at all for overtime, and 69 percent were denied meal breaks or had those breaks shortened. This list grows even more egregious when it includes the physical exploitation and sexual abuse commonly perpetrated against undocumented immigrants.

While employer abuse is not exclusive to undocumented workers, lack of status makes these employees inherently less secure. By granting these workers legal status and an earned pathway to citizenship, we would enable them to fully realize their basic employment rights.

Moreover, the benefits of ensuring basic protections through legal status and earned citizenship extend to all U.S. workers. All employees, be they citizens or noncitizens, are more vulnerable when employers are insulated from the legal consequences of their behavior. Therefore, bringing undocumented workers under the full protection of the law makes all workplaces more secure. It would also allow immigrants to fully participate in the U.S. economy, which has the potential to raise the combined wages of all workers by $470 billion, create an average of 121,000 new jobs per year, and increase gross domestic product, or GDP, by $832 billion over 10 years. In addition, the potential $392 billion wage increase for undocumented immigrants would allow them to pay $109 billion more in taxes over 10 years.

Immigration reform has even more relevance in today’s political context because it tackles big budget issues by cutting the deficit by $820 billion, profoundly strengthening Social Security, and enhancing Medicare. Rarely in a recovering economy is there such an economic opportunity, and we would be remiss not to take advantage of it.

This May Day, it’s important to realize just how American immigrant workers really are. Nothing shows more confidence in the American Dream than risking everything to enter a country where you believe, despite the disadvantages, that your commitment to work will earn you and your family a better life. Overwhelmingly, this is the reason that immigrants come, the reason they stay, and just one of the many reasons they deserve legal status and earned citizenship.

But time is running out. As of today, there are only 67 days left in session for Congress to pass immigration reform. And if it wants to be regarded kindly in May Day’s history, Congress will use its remaining days to pass immigration reform to secure rights for the undocumented, protection for the U.S. workforce, expansive benefits for the economy, and reward pursuit of the American Dream.

Micah Jones was an intern with the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress. 

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