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News from EPI Other states should follow California’s lead and pass laws that can protect labor standards for unauthorized immigrant workers

A new report by EPI’s Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research Daniel Costa argues that California’s immigration laws may offer unauthorized immigrant workers improved protections from retaliation in the workplace and increase their ability to access justice.

Unauthorized immigrants make up 5 percent of the total U.S. labor force and 9 percent of California’s labor force. Unauthorized immigrant workers are some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the labor market—their lack of work authorization, and the fact that they can be removed from the United States by federal immigration authorities, makes them more likely to be victims of workplace abuses, retaliation, and wage theft than other workers.

From 2013 to 2017, California’s state legislature passed a series of laws designed and intended to protect workers from retaliation and discrimination related to immigration status. For example, California’s AB 263 prohibits employers from using threats related to immigration status to retaliate against employees who have exercised their labor rights, and under SB 666, employers could potentially lose their business license for doing so, and attorneys who assist in retaliating could be suspended or disbarred.

“These laws have provided California’s labor commissioner and attorney general with new tools to combat retaliation and exploitation based on immigration status,” said Costa. “And they have provided immigrant workers with new causes of actions for civil lawsuits to enforce their rights and recover monetary damages from employers who violate labor and employment laws. Other states should follow suit and adopt similar laws.”

Costa explains that the Trump administration’s cancellation of the Obama administration’s deportation priorities and the statements of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan have signaled in a shift towards increasing federal immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States. As a result, California’s laws will be critically important during the remaining years of the Trump administration for protecting workers and preventing employers from taking advantage of this new environment to instill fear in their workforces and keep immigrant workers from speaking out against abuses.

Costa notes that the best way to ensure that unauthorized immigrant workers are protected in the workplace—and to improve labor standards and increase bargaining power for the those who work side-by-side with unauthorized immigrants—would be for Congress to pass a federal immigration reform package that provides a path to citizenship for all 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. However, in absence of federal reform, states can follow California’s model by passing laws that can deter employers from taking advantage of immigrants who lack work authorization.