WASHINGTON — A group of immigrant workers are back in the nation's capital advocating for the Biden Administration to provide deportation relief for undocumented people that report labor abuse to the federal government.
Jonas Reyes is connected to an ongoing federal lawsuit against a Nevada based painting company accused of wage theft by the U.S. Department of Labor. "I personally worked there for two years," he said to WUSA9 in Spanish, his native language. "We were not getting paid overtime. They would make us work long hours but never got paid for it."
Reyes says fear of retaliation because of their immigration status stopped him and his coworkers from reporting Unforgettable Coatings Inc.
After over a year of organizing, the workers eventually came forward with their testimonies, which prompted the Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate the company. DOL filed a lawsuit against the Las Vegas business in federal district court in 2020.
Since the alleged labor abuse was reported, a handful of former Unforgettable Coatings Inc. employees, including Reyes have received deportation relief in the form of Deferred Action.
"It protects us for a limited period, and we are able to apply for a work permit and a social security," said Reyes.
For the first time, in July of this year, the U.S. Department of Labor released new regulatory guidance aimed at protecting workers like Reyes from immigration-related intimidation when they participate in investigations on labor abuses.
“For the Department of Labor to carry out the laws it enforces, workers must feel free to participate in its investigations and proceedings without fear of retaliation or consequences related to their immigration status,” wrote the Office of the Solicitor in their release announcing the regulatory guidance.
Advocate groups that have been supporting these undocumented workers like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) are pressuring for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to do their part to ensure these protections are guaranteed.
"We are still waiting on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to publicly announce their process to give these protections. Right now, we are seeing individual cases come through," said attorney Cal Soto who works with NDLON.
Soto says that if DHS formalized their guidance, it could transform the way that labor abuse is reported across the country, empowering those that are most vulnerable to exploitation.
"Immigrant workers feel like they don't have any workers' rights. They don't have any ability to tell their bosses that they are not being paid correctly, that they are putting their lives at risk," added Soto.
WUSA9 reached out to DHS about any new guidance regarding this kind of deportation relief, but we have yet to hear back from them. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor says requests for support will be considered on a case-by-case basis.