The Biden administration recently announced that the federal government would stop raiding workplaces to arrest undocumented workers. This ends the former administration’s policy, which the Biden Administration claimed was used by “exploitative employers to suppress and retaliate against workers’ assertion of labor laws.”

This ends what U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas referred to as “mass worksite enforcement operations” in a memorandum addressed to the leaders of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

These massive raids often resulted in the arrests of hundreds of workers at one time, according to the DHS. Mayorkas stated in the memo that these mass arrests wrongly focused the department’s resources and efforts on the workers rather than employers.

“Our worksite enforcement efforts can have a significant impact on the well-being of individuals and the fairness of the labor market,” Mayorkas said in the memo. “Our accomplishments in this area make clear that we can maximize the impact of our efforts by focusing on unscrupulous employers who exploit the vulnerability of undocumented workers.” 

“We can most effectively protect the American labor market, the conditions of the American worksite, and the dignity of the individual by focusing our worksite enforcement efforts on unscrupulous employers,” Mayorkas said. Employers may offer substandard wages or impose unsafe working conditions on undocumented workers. Some may even facilitate human trafficking and child exploitation. Mayorkas added that these employers also harm each worker competing for a job by creating an unfair labor market. 

This shift in policy is part of DHS efforts to “promote a fair labor market by supporting more effective enforcement of wage protections, workplace safety, labor rights, and other employment laws and standards.”

The memo also directs subagencies of the DHS to review and update policies that will better enable the DHS to prioritize the enforcement of labor laws. The memo states that the agencies must consider and develop strategies that would prioritize workplace enforcement against “unscrupulous employers” and support vulnerable workers in labor standards investigations.

“We will not tolerate unscrupulous employers who exploit unauthorized workers, conduct illegal activities or impose unsafe working conditions,” Mayorkas said in the statement. “Employers engaged in illegal acts compel the focus of our enforcement resources.  By adopting policies that focus on the most unscrupulous employers, we will protect workers as well as legitimate American businesses.”

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, welcomed the secretary’s announcement, stating that the previous administration “too often carried out raids that tore apart communities but allowed employers to continue exploiting workers.” 

“Refocusing resources to counter exploitative employers is a necessary step in protecting the American labor market and workers,” Thompson said in a statement. “I appreciate the department’s efforts to protect workers who sound the alarm on labor violations.”

And Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, made a statement that noted that undocumented workers have been essential to the country’s response to the pandemic. “In America, all workers deserve a workplace that ensures they are treated with basic dignity and respect, and these actions by the administration are an important step in safeguarding the safety and well-being of undocumented workers,” Menendez said.

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