Worker centers, advocates demand Biden protect whistleblowing migrants
The Day Laborers on the march in Los Angeles. | NDLON/Twitter

CHICAGO — Worker centers and migrants’ advocates are demanding that President Biden, and particularly his Department of Homeland Security, publicize and publicly advocate a little-known DHS waiver of deportation for undocumented people who become whistleblowers about worker exploitation and abuse on the job.

With backing from the AFL-CIO-recognized National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), they’re undertaking a national week of action—including a kickoff press conference in Chicago and a march in downtown Los Angeles–to publicize the cause.

“To their credit, the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board released guidelines in 2021 and 2022” on how they’d protect such whistleblowers from deportation, one speaker told the January 11 Chicago press conference in Daley Plaza. “DHS has not.”

The problem, organizers say, is that if whistleblowers who are also undocumented people come forward to report labor abuses—sexual harassment, wage theft, job safety and health violations, and more—they could get picked up and deported by DHS agents.

Yet DHS has a little-known power to waive such deportations. About 25% of all the waivers it’s granted—which number in the hundreds—have been granted to Chicago residents.

Now NDLON and its allies are marching to get Biden to openly publicize the waiver program and vow to protect such whistleblowers, and to get DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to publicize its protections and waivers of deportation nationally.

“#BREAKING: Workers are taking to the streets to send a message to President @JoeBiden–silence on immigrant workers rights is not an option! #YNosotrosQue Presidente?? What about immigrant workers, President Biden?” they tweeted.

DHS protests that it’s already announced the existence of the waivers.

Workers are sometimes afraid to report

“Workers are sometimes afraid to report violations of law by exploitative employers or to cooperate in employment and labor standards investigations because they fear removal or other immigration-related retaliation due to reports by an abusive employer,” its website q-and-a on the waivers admits.

“DHS’s practice of offering discretionary protection on a case-by-case basis to victims who lack employment authorization directly increases the ability of labor and employment agencies to more fully investigate worksite violations and support them in fulfilling their mission and holding abusive employers accountable, which protects all U.S. workers.”

Except that DHS finally outlined last year how it decides who gets the waivers to stay in the U.S., and who doesn’t, the worker centers and advocates reply. It’s a cumbersome, paper- and website-filled process, and it’s gotten no publicity.

A confirmed whistleblower who earns a DHS deportation waiver may stay in the U.S. for up to two years and also may apply, depending on circumstances, for a little-known T or U visa. But DHS can revoke the waiver and deport the whistleblower at any time before the initial two years are up, the agency announcement adds.

Which is where the worker centers and advocates at the Chicago press conference want Biden to come into the picture. Chicago worker centers have helped residents there get the waivers.

“One year ago, #DHS announced guidelines for workers who report workplace abuse to obtain protection against deportation. But for one year, President Biden has been absolutely SILENT about his own policy—and about the rampant abuses facing migrant workers. No more!” they said.

A blue ribbon commission the workers centers and their allies assembled has been pushing the issue since 2021, in meetings at DOL and with White House aides, and sessions in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Gainesville, Fla., and Mississippi.

Biden and DHS could have moved fast on the waivers of deportation, plus temporary visas, just as DOL and the NLRB did, the commission said. That would have protected whistleblowers during the coronavirus pandemic, too.

“Workers organized multiple assemblies, public hearings, and demonstrations, highlighting the extent of workplace abuse in factories, warehouses, restaurants, fields, and construction sites, the extent of wage theft across industries, and the rampant violations of health and safety standards in dangerous workplaces or in the middle of disasters,” NDLON and its allies posted.

They also got the attention of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who raised the issue with Mayorkas in a recent hearing on immigration. Booker pointed out DHS responded to abuses in Mississippi packing plants, pre-2021, with mass roundups and deportations, including the whistleblowers.

Mayorkas told Booker enforcement must not be used “in retaliation for” speaking up. “We have a suite of measures” to protect whistleblowers, including “deferred action so they can advance their rights without fear of removal from the United States,” the secretary added.

“Unlawful presence within the United States is not in and of itself a basis for enforcement action. We have to prioritize national security and border security” Mayorkas told Booker. DHS has instructed its agents “to consider deferred action” to protect the whistleblowers, and “to vindicate their rights” so the government “can hold unscrupulous employers accountable.”

That prioritization has drawn the ire of the radical nativist Republican right, so much so that their allies among the House’s ruling Republicans are impeaching Mayorkas for dereliction of duty and failure to enforce immigration laws—which for them means failure to deport every undocumented person in the U.S., as their god, Donald Trump, advocates.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.