Complaints over immigration-related retaliation threats surged last year in California, according to the Labour Commissioner’s Office. Through Dec. 22, workers had filed 94 immigration-related retaliation claims with the office, up from 20 in all of 2016 and only seven a year earlier.
The cases include instances in which employers allegedly threatened to report workers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, after they raised issues over working conditions, including wage theft.
Laws that took effect in 2014 specifically barring the practice probably played a role in the increase of official complaints filed with the state agency, as workers become more familiar with their rights.
But Labour Commissioner Julie Su and immigrant advocates said the rise also could be attributed to employers feeling more empowered to wield ICE as a weapon given an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and stepped-up enforcement by ICE.
President Trump has railed against illegal and legal immigration during the 2016 campaign and his presidency, often citing crime, including terrorism, as a reason for his stance, even though a number of studies show immigrants generally are less likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S.
Under federal and state law, workers are protected by minimum wage and other workplace laws regardless of immigration status.
Asked what steps ICE takes to ensure employers don’t use the agency as a retaliatory tool, a department spokeswoman pointed to a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Labor Department.
The memorandum says ICE assesses whether tips and leads concerning workplace enforcement are “motivated by an improper desire to manipulate a pending labor dispute, retaliate against employees for exercising labor rights, or otherwise frustrate the enforcement of labor laws.”
A spokeswoman for Su said no similar agreement exists between the state agency and ICE, and that because the Labour Commissioner’s Office does not share information with immigration officials, workers should not be afraid to file complaints regardless of immigration status.
The Trump administration has proved more willing than the Obama administration to arrest people here illegally who are convicted of minor crimes or who have no criminal history. In the last fiscal year, the arrests of people in the U.S. illegally with no criminal convictions more than doubled, to over 37,000.
California took steps last year to protect people in the country illegally. A so-called sanctuary state bill dramatically reduces whom state and local law enforcement agencies can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities. And under another bill, employers also can’t let federal immigration agents onto private business property without a judicial warrant.