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Immigration Reform: Protect Workers and Victims of Crime

The US Immigration System Should Be Committed to Protecting Immigrants from Workplace Violations and Crime

A.  Equal protection for all workers

Immigrant workers, both authorized and unauthorized, are a mainstay of the US economy. Eight million unauthorized immigrants work in the US economy. Many immigrants are entrepreneurs, starting businesses as humble as grocery stands and as transformative as Google. And certain industries depend on immigrant workers. For example, the vast majority of farmworkers (72 percent) are foreign-born; conservative estimates suggest that 50 percent of all farmworkers are unauthorized.

All workers, regardless of immigration status, should have the right to safe and healthy work conditions, to equal treatment, and to organize and bargain collectively. Immigrant workers, however, face particular challenges in asserting these rights, even when they are legally allowed to work in the United States. Industries that rely heavily on an immigrant workforce, such as agriculture and home health care, are excluded from basic labor laws, such as overtime, that apply to nearly every other sector. Immigrant workers injured on the job or subject to sexual abuse are often afraid to report the harm they have suffered. Employers who fail to pay wages often tell their workers, ­“I don’t have to pay you, you’re illegal.” The US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic v. NLRB emboldens such employers, potentially limiting the remedies available to unauthorized workers when employers use such tactics. Temporary workers, despite having legal permission to work, are dependent on their employers for continued legal status. Thus, unscrupulous employers can use the threat of deportation to coerce immigrant workers, both authorized and unauthorized, to not report abuses. And unlike victims of serious crimes, victims of workplace abuse who file claims have no access to temporary visas that would allow them to remain in the United States while their claims are pending.

Recommendations: A new immigration system should ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, can assert their basic rights and seek remedies when those rights are violated.

  • Create temporary visas for unauthorized workers who are victims of workplace abuses so that they can pursue their claims and, in criminal cases, so that they can testify and help ensure that perpetrators face justice.
  • Ensure equality of remedies for all workers who suffer workplace violations or seek to enforce workers’ rights, regardless of immigration status.
  • Minimize the particularly exploitative conditions of temporary migrant work:
  • Make temporary worker visas portable between employers, including employers in different industries.
  • Provide temporary migrant workers a grace period to search for new employment after leaving their initial job.
  • Ensure temporary migrant workers can maintain legal status while credible legal claims are pending.

Hard Work Rewarded with Threats of Deportation

Human Rights Watch met “Monica V.” in upstate New York, where she had come looking for work as a farmworker. She said she had come to the US alone 12 years ago because the father of her children left her, and she could no longer take care of her six children in Guatemala. Her family was eating only one meal a day, a tortilla with salt.

When Monica first arrived in the United States, she began working in sanitation at a turkey processing plant in Georgia. She worked two shifts a day, and even took on another two-hour stint injecting turkeys for extra ­income, sleeping only three hours a night. But she was injured when the hose she used to clean the machines hit her eye. The company asked her for “good papers,” even though she had already been working at the ­company for three years, and then fired her for being unauthorized. “[W]hen I had the accident,” she says, “they started to disregard me. I was no longer good for them.”

This experience was repeated. Monica reported that several years later an employer at another poultry ­processing plant also used her lack of legal immigration status to push her out when she was injured on the job. Her hand was injured so badly in the workplace injury, she said, that two of her fingers still have no feeling. Managers called her into the office and asked, “Do you want us to call the police or do you want to leave on your own?” She replied, “Why would you want to call the police?” and they responded, “Because the papers are not good. You have to leave or I’ll call the police.”

Then, Monica said, her supervisor asked her where she lived, making “very clear what he was looking for”—
if Monica had sex with him, she could have her job back. Monica says, “I cried so bitterly, why God, why so many things? And they didn’t give me back my job.” She had worked at the plant for seven years.

After 12 years in this country, having endured numerous injuries, harassment, and employer abuse, Monica said, “I feel so sad…. Does the president not know how much we do? How much we sacrifice? And now we are criminals?”

Human Rights Watch interview with Monica V. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011, in Human Rights Watch, Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, May 16, 2012, 


B. Equal protection for all victims of crimes.

When unauthorized immigrants fear reporting crimes, the entire community is put at risk. Instead of encouraging trust in law enforcement, the US government and several states support laws and policies that, in effect, intimidate unauthorized immigrants and deter them from calling the police.

Local law enforcement agencies have increasingly become intertwined with federal immigration enforcement. Over the last several years, the US government has pushed states to adopt programs such as the Criminal Alien Program, the 287(g) Program, and Secure Communities. Through these programs, unauthorized immigrants who come into contact with law enforce­ment­—often through incidents as minor as traffic stops—have been checked against an immigration database and then held for immigration authorities. Although the Obama administration claims Secure Communities targets only serious criminals for deportation, over half of immigrants removed through the program had no criminal convictions or convictions only for minor offenses, including traffic violations and street vending. In some communities, unauthorized immigrants have good reason to believe any contact with the police, even a call reporting domestic violence, can lead to deportation. As a result, law enforcement officials around the country have expressed concern that the program is adversely affecting their ability to police their communities.

At the same time, state governments in Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Utah have all passed laws that require or authorize law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of individuals during a lawful stop or arrest.

A temporary visa called the U visa is available to unauthorized immigrants who are victims of certain serious crimes, who have suffered serious physical or mental abuse, and who cooperate with the investigation, but only 10,000 visas are available each year, and for each of the past three years that limit has been reached before the end of the year. Local law enforcement agencies also often unfairly refuse to certify applications for victims who have cooperated with investigations. Most witnesses to crimes—as opposed to victims—are not eligible for U visas, which limits law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes fully.

Recommendations: A new immigration system should ensure that civil immigration enforcement does not take priority over protecting communities from violent crime.

  • End Secure Communities, the 287(g) Program, and similar programs that turn local law enforcement officers into immigration agents.
  • Eliminate the arbitrary cap on U visas.
  • Allow for additional ways to prove cooperation with law enforcement in applications for U visas.
  • Create temporary visas for witnesses of serious crimes (the crimes enumerated in the eligibility criteria for U visas) in order to further investigations.


“Now there’s no safety for Hispanics.”

Soon after Alabama passed a harsh anti-immigrant law in 2011, “Sara M.” found out that a friend, a Honduran immigrant, had been beaten and robbed in Birmingham. Two neighbors had witnessed the assault, brought her friend inside, and tended to his wounds. But they did not call the police or take him to the hospital because he feared questions about his unauthorized status. Sara said she called the police and asked if they would ask about his status if he came in to report the crime. When they replied, “Yes,” she hung up. “Before, you could call the police and feel safe,” Sara said. “Now there’s no safety for Hispanics.”

Human Rights Watch interview with Sara M. (pseudonym), (location withheld), October 29, 2011,
in Human Rights Watch,
No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law,December 14, 2011,


Human Rights Watch reports on related issues:

Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Farmworker Women and Girls to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment

Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture

Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants

Tough, Fair, and Practical: A Human Rights Framework for Immigration Reform in the United States

No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law


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