A bicameral group of Democrats led by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced a bill Wednesday to protect immigrant workers who file labor claims against their employers.
The bill, dubbed the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act, would expand a visa program targeted toward victims and whistleblowers, and provide protection from deportation for workers involved in a labor dispute.
“As the Trump Administration continues their attacks on immigrant communities, vulnerable immigrant workers who experience unsafe working conditions or fear retaliation by their abusive employers need to be protected by law,” said Menendez in a statement.
“Our legislation will help ensure workers have a path to report unlawful or unfair labor practices and that they don’t fall through the cracks of a broken immigration system just because they stand up for their rights,” he added.
The bill would expand the U visa program by removing the 10,000 visa per year cap and lowering application expenses and adding victims of serious labor violations to the program’s eligibility list.
The U visa grants the right to work and live in the United States to some victims of crimes such as domestic violence, rape, abusive sexual contact, abduction, blackmail and felony assault.
Under Menedez’s bill, state, local and federal agencies would also be empowered to apply to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to grant temporary legal immigration status to undocumented immigrants who have filed a labor claim or are material witnesses in a claim.
It would also force DHS agencies that conduct immigration raids on workplaces to involve labor authorities before deporting any detainees, in order to determine whether labor rights were infringed by employers.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said, “immigrants make up 17.4 percent of the labor force in the United States and are important contributors in the healthcare, manufacturing, construction and agriculture industries.”
“But, despite how much we depend on immigrants, some unscrupulous employers seek to exploit them, making them work extreme hours in difficult and dangerous conditions. They do this knowing that, being undocumented, the workers will be too afraid to report this abuse to the authorities,” she added.
The bill has so far received significant support from labor unions, whose role in the immigration debate has grown on par with the demographic diversification of their affiliate pools.
“Our system relies on workers to take action to keep workplaces safe and fair, but it takes real courage to come forward because the risks are so great,” said Shannon Lederer, director of immigration policy for the AFL-CIO.
Menendez was joined on the legislation in the House by Chu and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), David Trone (D-Md.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), and Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).