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Major Victory for Immigrant Workers in the US

DHS Announces New Temporary Protections for Workers Fighting Labor Abuse

Farm workers in an okra field near Coachella, California, July 13, 2022.  © 2022 Mario Tama/Getty Images

In a major victory for workers, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new guidance last week that allows migrant and immigrant workers who experience or witness workplace labor or civil rights violations to receive temporary protection against deportation and access to work authorization.

Under international human rights law, workplace protections apply to all workers, regardless of citizenship status. But as Human Rights Watch has documented, fear of immigration-related retaliation, including deportation, causes many workers who are unauthorized or otherwise have tentative immigration status to hesitate about speaking up in the workplace or reporting abusive employers and working conditions. 

Under the new DHS guidance, workers assisting with investigations and enforcement actions by federal, state, or local labor agencies can, with those agencies’ support, apply for an expedited discretionary grant of deferred action. If approved, this would provide whistleblowers and victims of rights abuses protection against immigration enforcement, typically for at least two years. During this period of deferred action, workers may also receive federal employment authorization, allowing them to work legally in the United States.

This new process can provide undocumented workers and those on temporary work visas with a preemptive shield against immigration-related retaliation and workplace exploitation. Although some existing programs can grant nonimmigrant status to victims of crimes, such as U visas and T visas, the efficacy of these programs is significantly hindered by coverage limitations, caps, and years-long backlogs, as Human Rights Watch documented in 2018.

This key reform follows years of worker-driven organizing and advocacy from a coalition of immigrants’ and workers’ rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. In November 2021, Human Rights Watch submitted recommendations to US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calling on DHS to make clear that all workers should feel comfortable organizing and voicing concerns about labor conditions without fear.

With its new guidance, DHS has now taken a meaningful step toward this critical objective.

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