Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
January 17, 2024
Last year, federal immigration officials created an expedited deportation protection process for workers facing immigration-related intimidation by abusive employers.
Now, laborers in Las Vegas have received the first deportation relief and work permit renewals under the program, known as Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement or DALE.
“The first renewals have just come up, but there are many, many of these deferred action cases that have been granted since we put the process in place under this administration,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su during a talk she held with Latino workers organized by the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center last week.
“We are continuing to refine it, to improve it, and extensions are one part of that, so there will be more to come,” she continued.
Immigration-based retaliation creates unfair labor market conditions and perpetuates unlawful acts by employers, including wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and chills workers’ ability to organize and collectively bargain, Su noted.
The deferred action program provides two years of deportation protection and a legal work permit for unauthorized workers who are victims of, or witnesses to, the violation of labor rights.
The Department of Homeland Security has been considering requests for deferred action by unauthorized workers for some time, but in January 2023, the department formalized the process to grant workers deferred action on a case-by-case basis in order to more fully investigate worksite violations and hold abusive employers accountable.
“The deferred action process that we put in place was because we know that if we don’t protect workers from retaliation or negative consequences through the weaponization of immigration status, we can’t get workers to come forward, and that just increases their exploitation and abuse,” Su said during the event.
Workers in Las Vegas played a huge role in the push to establish the DALE program, said Su, who vowed to visit the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center after laborers rallied for renewals at the nation’s capital in December.
In recent years, labor advocates in Las Vegas have stepped up efforts to protect undocumented whistleblowers via deferred action after employees experienced retaliation from Unforgettable Coatings — a painting company based in Las Vegas — for speaking out against repeated wage theft.
Workers began reporting wage theft and retaliation from the painting company to the Department of Labor in 2019, before the case was brought to court by the secretary of labor in 2020.
Ex-employees eventually won a settlement of $3.68 million for stolen wages, penalties, damages and interest, as a result of the federal Department of Labor investigation.
Rosario Ortiz, a former employee of Unforgettable Coatings, Inc. has been a leading voice advocating for the labor protections of immigrant workers in Las Vegas and nationwide. During the event, Ortiz recalled wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and immigration-related retaliation.
“They told me to remember that I was undocumented and that I could end up having immigration issues if I didn’t do as I was told,” Ortiz said.
Laborers who spoke at the event last week celebrated the first successful DALE renewals of the year, but also highlighted the need to advance effective and permanent protections for migrant workers in Nevada who continue to face the greatest danger of labor exploitation.
Workers asked Labor Secretary Su to advocate for the implementation of automatic work permit renewals, arguing that was the best way to reduce labor exploitation and work safety violations by abusive employers.
“Winning this battle was difficult for everyone, and especially for our colleagues who traveled to the Capital,” said María Navarro, a native of El Salvador and mother of four children, in her native Spanish. “I ask that we continue the fight, if possible, they may grant us a permit not only for two years, but for five or permanently.”
The labor secretary spoke to the crowd in Spanish, praising the Biden administration for establishing the DALE program and the president’s commitment to protecting labor rights for immigrants.
“It doesn’t matter where you were born or how you arrived in the United States, everyone has labor rights. Unfortunately, wage theft is still a reality in many workplaces,” Su said, in Spanish. “Many workers also suffer accidents and can even lose their life at work.”
One of those injured workers is Marco Reséndiz, who lost a part of his finger during a work accident after being forced to work while still recovering from a shoulder injury.
“We have to speak up and defend our rights. You go out and work to earn your daily bread for your family, and what do they do? They steal from us, they don’t pay our overtime, they don’t follow work safety,” Reséndiz said. “We all have the right to speak up. If we unite, we can do something big.”
The labor secretary encouraged laborers at the event to spread the message that all workers have the right to bring forward labor violations by employers, and can do so while receiving federal protection from immigration-related retaliation.
Spreading that message is more important than ever as infrastructure projects — like the Brightline high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to California — will require a massive workforce, said Su. She added that the project will “build a highway to the middle class,” but that goal can’t be achieved if they can’t enforce laws to stop labor exploitation.
“The laws are only worth something if they are enforced,” said Su. “I want to say very clearly that this President and I, as your acting labor secretary, and the Department of Labor, are on your side when your rights are violated.”
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