A Homeland Security official said that it will now prioritize investigating employers who abuse undocumented immigrants and facilitate human trafficking.
The Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will end the long-running practice of conducting work-place raids in search of undocumented immigrants.
According to The Associated Press, the agency will shift its focus to “unscrupulous employers who exploit the vulnerability of undocumented workers.” As part of its new mission, Homeland Security will investigate businesses which have unsafe working conditions, facilitate human trafficking, and pay sub-standard wages.
The Associated Press reports that the changes were announced Tuesday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
In a three-page memo, Mayorkas directed Homeland Security’s subsidiaries—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration Services—to create a plan increasing employer-specific penalties. The agencies will also encourage workers to report abuse.
Mayorkas said other immigration authorities should consider exercising “prosecutorial discretion,” so that undocumented workers can report abusive employers without having to worry about being reported and possibly deported.
In his memo, Mayorkas said that worksite operations go against Homeland Security’s civil rights code, and should be avoided.
Mayorkas’ memo represents a significant shift in policy. Under President Donald Trump, workplace raids were commonplace. In 2019, for instance, the federal government raided a Mississippi chicken processing plant, arresting an estimated 700 undocumented workers. Other poultry plant raids culminated in the arrest of hundreds more.
However, neither Homeland Security nor the U.S. government took extensive action against the plants’ management—only four plant executives have since been indicted.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said that President Trump’s policies hurt undocumented workers while granting their employers impunity.
“The previous Administration too often carried out riads that tore apart communities but allowed employers to continue exploiting workers,” Thompson said in a statement. “Refocusing resources to counter exploitative employers is a necessary step in protecting the American labor market and workers. I appreciate the Department’s efforts to protect workers who sound the alarm on labor violations.”
The Biden administration appears to be returning to the approach preferred by former President Barack Obama, who avoided mass workplace actions.
“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 on Tuesday. “These highly visible operations misallocated enforcement resources while chilling, and even serving as a tool of retaliation for, worker cooperation in workplace standards investigations.”
Immigration activists have since praised Homeland Security’s move. Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told The Associated Press that the agency’s revised focus is welcome, if long over-due.
“It is long past time for D.H.S. to stop enabling employers who use the threat of deportation as a tool to facilitate exploitation and avoid accountability,” Marin-Molina said. “Immigrant workers kept the lights on in this country during the pandemic, and they were essentially told by the government that they should work to death without basic rights so that others could live.”