By Shriom Arza
On October 10, 2021 the Biden administration announced that U.S. immigration authorities will no longer carry out mass arrests of unauthorized immigrants at work sites, saying law enforcement efforts should focus on holding exploitative employers accountable. These arrests have been denounced by advocates for years because they cause distrust and discourage workers from reporting labor violations because they are scared that they would be arrested. So far, these raids have not been common during the Biden administration, which is a significant change from his predecessor. The announcement shows a complete departure from the Trump administration’s strategy of using large worksite roundups to discourage undocumented individuals from working. In the summer of 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enacted the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history, arresting nearly 700 undocumented food processing plant workers in Mississippi.
The new policy comes during a labor shortage in the United States, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and gives some peace of mind for undocumented workers that they are not being targeted for deportation en masse solely for working without authorization. The new strategy also follows through with the promises that President Biden had made about taking a softer approach to immigration policy than the prior administration.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has stated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should and will prioritize combating illegal acts committed by “unscrupulous” employers, who he acknowledged often pay workers unlivable wages, subject their employees to unsafe working conditions and facilitate human trafficking and child exploitation. The memo directly states:
“Cease mass worksite operations. The deployment of mass worksite operations, sometimes resulting in the simultaneous arrest of hundreds of workers, was not focused on the most pernicious aspect of our country’s unauthorized employment challenge: exploitative employers. These highly visible operations misallocated enforcement resources while chilling, and even serving as a tool of retaliation for, worker cooperation in workplace standards investigations.”
“Requests for prosecutorial discretion. I understand the Department of Labor has recently requested support in certain ongoing workplace standards investigations, including by asking that OHS (Occupational Health & Safety) consider whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion for workers who are victims of, or witnesses to, workplace exploitation. These individual requests should be considered on a case-by-case basis, weighing all relevant facts and circumstances. In evaluating these requests, the legitimate enforcement interests of a federal government agency should be weighed against any derogatory information to determine whether a favorable exercise of discretion is merited.”
Tuesday’s memo is also part of the Biden administration’s efforts to narrow who will be a target for detention and deportation by ICE. Deportation agents have already been directed to refrain from arresting pregnant or nursing women, victims of serious crimes and undocumented immigrants who do not have serious criminal records. In his memo, Secretary Mayorkas instructed top DHS officials to avoid placing undocumented victims of labor exploitation in deportation proceedings and to consider granting them temporary legal status. Such actions, Mayorkas argued, will encourage them to cooperate with federal law enforcement. Mayorkas also charged the department with making sure that E-Verify, an online government program that allows employers to check the status of would-be employees, is not “misused” to retaliate against workers who report workplace abuse. By targeting employers, Mayorkas said the policy shift could usher in a fairer labor market and benefit businesses competing with employers that are exploiting immigrant workers, including by paying them less. The discontinuation of mass workplace immigration sweeps was welcomed by advocates for immigrants, who have criticized the Biden administration for not imposing further limits on ICE arrests and deportations.
The new policy, however, is likely to gain no support from congressional Republicans, who have stated the limits on immigration arrests in the US has coincided with the increase in migrant interactions along the US-Mexico border. Republicans criticized the new policy. “This makes our country LESS SAFE and LESS SECURE,” the Republican National Committee’s research arm wrote on Twitter.
Under the latest guidelines, migrants who arrived at the US-Mexico border after November 2020 are the priority for arrest and deportation. Some people who have crossed the border are also being rapidly expelled to Mexico under a still on-going Trump-era pandemic measure known as Title 42.
Immigration advocates commended the new work-site enforcement strategy, but they said they want easier paths for citizenship, “[r]efocusing resources to counter exploitative employers is a necessary step in protecting the American labor market and workers,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairperson of the Homeland Security Committee. “While we applaud today’s announcement by the administration to end workplace raids, we need more commitment from this administration to protect all 11 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, not just in their workplaces,” Nicole Melaku, the executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We need permanent protection now.”
If you wonder if you or your anyone you know are eligible for some form of immigration relief, then please feel free to contact the Law Office of Gian-Franco Melendez, LLC to speak with an experienced immigration attorney about your options.