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New Department of Homeland Security Guidelines Give Power Back to Immigrant Workers

Man on a farm carrying a basket of sweet potatoes that were just harvested.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken an important step to protect noncitizen workers from exploitative employers who threaten them with deportation or with other types of retaliation related to their immigration status. From now on, DHS will expedite deferred action for those workers who have experienced or witnessed work violations and would like to cooperate with the investigation

When workers call the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report abuses at their workplaces, one of the most common methods of control they mention is threats of deportation. In fact, between 2018 and 2020, nearly 6 out of every 10 H-2A visa holders that reported their trafficking situation to the Trafficking Hotline said they were being threatened with immigration consequences if they complain about the exploitative working conditions.

With these new guidelines, noncitizen workers can submit a “Deferred Action” request and an application for “Employer Authorization” in a new centralized intake office, a step that halts any deportation proceedings and provides temporary immigration protections. This is a clear message to employers that use threats of deportation as a way to control foreign workers. At the same time, it offers an important incentive for workers to feel more protected when they see or experience violations of their labor rights. 

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Polaris has highlighted the importance of effectively protecting noncitizens workers against trafficking and exploitation, and some of the unique vulnerabilities that they experience: isolation, remote work sites, dependency of the employer for housing and transportation, low English proficiency, lack of access to support networks, just to mention a few of them. These new guidelines could benefit vulnerable workers in many industries across the country, regardless of their status, which is an important development toward empowering foreign workers. The connection with appropriate legal services remains essential and for isolated workers, this is a real challenge.

The new guidelines work hand in hand with two other important announcements that also can contribute to empower workers to report violations to their rights. First, in July 2022, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a document to provide workers with “guidance on how to seek the department’s support for their requests to the Department of Homeland Security for immigration-related prosecutorial discretion.” Another tool for immigrant workers is the new guidance from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that makes it easier for them to safely participate in investigations without fearing for their immigration status. Polaris is pleased to see DHS and DOL taking these critical steps — and we will keep working towards a labor environment free of trafficking and exploitation. 

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.