ICE, CBP to Increase Fines for Employers Who Exploit Undocumented Workers

U.S. immigration will shift their attention from mass workplace raids on workplaces suspected of employing undocumented people, instead focusing on companies who take advantage of the vulnerable demographic.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo Tuesday saying the department will pursue "unscrupulous employers who exploit the vulnerability of undocumented workers" and prioritize labor abuses like substandard wages, unsafe conditions and human trafficking.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services must outline a plan in the next two months that will increase fines for employers, empower workers to report illegal labor practices and coordinate with other agencies like the Department of Labor, according to the three-page memo.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Myorkas Memo
FILE - In this May 25, 2021, file photo, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks with the media outside of the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami. Federal immigration agents will stop making mass worksite arrest of immigrants employees suspected of living in the U.S. without legal permission. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued guidance Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, saying the agency would cease such targeted enforcement which has "not focused on the most pernicious aspect of our country's unauthorized employment challenge: exploitative employers." Lynne Sladky, File/AP Photo

Mass worksite raids were common under former President Donald Trump, including a 2019 operation targeting Mississippi chicken plants, the largest such operation in over a decade. Trump and other Republican presidents defended raids as strong deterrents against illegal immigration, while workers groups called them unfair and discriminatory. For instance, most of the 680 workers arrested at chicken plants run by companies including Illinois-based Koch Foods were Latino.

Tuesday's move away from raids more closely resembles the approach by former President Barack Obama, who largely avoided such operations, limiting workplace immigration efforts to low-profile audits.

"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," Mayorkas wrote. "These highly visible operations misallocated enforcement resources while chilling, and even serving as a tool of retaliation for, worker cooperation in workplace standards investigations."

Along with ending mass worksite arrests, Mayorkas said immigration authorities should also immediately start using "prosecutorial discretion" when it comes to encouraging workers to speak up about workplace exploitation and preventing employers from using retaliatory threats of deportation.

Workers rights groups applauded the move, saying immigrant workers, particularly those without legal permission to live in the U.S., are especially vulnerable. Industries such as meatpacking and chicken processing are particularly reliant on immigrant labor for backbreaking work often set in rural areas with limited access to attorneys.

During the initial weeks of the pandemic, Trump ordered meatpacking plants to remain open amid concerns about the nation's food supply, even as COVID-19 outbreaks were closing plants.

"It is long past time for DHS to stop enabling employers who use the threat of deportation as a tool to facilitate exploitation and evade accountability," Nadia Marin-Molina an executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said in a statement. "Immigrant workers kept the lights on in this country during a pandemic, and they were essentially told by the government they should work to death without basic rights so that others could live."

Large immigration raids were also common under former President George W. Bush, including in 2006 when immigration agents swept Swift & Co. plants, netting about 1,300 immigrant worker arrests. It was the largest single-worksite raid in U.S. history.

Immigration Rally
Immigrant rights activists rally outside the LA County Democratic Party Headquarters in Los Angeles, California on October 8, 2021. - Activists gathered to demand support from the Democratic Party in favor of four immigration proposals that would grant immigration legalization and a path to citizenship for several million undocumented immigrants. The proposals are currently at risk of being nullified, according to the activists, by adverse opinions by US Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images