Exploited migrant workers demand Biden administration protection
In this photo, immigrant day laborers, prominent among the groups of immigrant workers suffering super exploitation, shape up in front of a Home Depot in Phoenix, Arizona. Groups representing exploited immigrant workers demonstrated today in front of the Department of Labor in Washington D.C. | Khampha Bouaphanh/AP

WASHINGTON—Making the connection between their migrant status and the federal protection they would get through Biden administration action, dozens of Spanish-speaking workers descended on the U.S. Labor Department’s front steps to demand the Democratic president and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh move now.

The workers, organized by the Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement coalition, included exploited workers from Mississippi and Louisiana and several survivors of the fatal nitrogen explosion at a plant in Gainesville, Ga., earlier this year.

All are currently undocumented, a status that would change if they received U-1 visas, which let them stay in the U.S. as refugees.

The migrant workers’ campaign to lobby Biden and lawmakers was one of three such events in two days in D.C.’s heat and humidity. Later on July 12, the Poor People’s Campaign hosted the first of a four-week series of Moral Mondays—three in D.C. and one in state capitals—to push for passage of the For the People Act, a $15 federal minimum wage, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and an end to Senate minority rule via filibusters.

And another big group of low-wage workers, many of them immigrants, and led by SEIU Local 323BJ and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, will hit town the morning of July 13.

Meanwhile, without those visas or other papers, rapacious bosses are free to exploit the workers, speakers said. Many of the workers wore blue “We Count!” and white-on-black “Accept my labor, respect my rights” T-shirts. “Si se puede!” was a frequent chant, along with “No criminalization!”

“We continue to carry ankle bracelets” so bosses can keep track of their location, said one Mississippi woman. Workers don’t get bathroom breaks and often receive “zero paychecks” after bosses deduct money for rent and other charges. The workers live 13 to a dwelling and pay $370/month each.

“We continue to face retribution for demanding and defending our rights. Marty Walsh must undo the actions” of the past anti-worker anti-Hispanic GOP Trump Labor Department, she declared.

“Employers try to silence us,” another woman worker declared, in Spanish, the rally’s predominant language.

In an interview with People’s World, just before the group headed to a second rally site, in front of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service offices, Rosalio Palacios, executive director of Georgia Familias Unidas, elaborated on the direct connection between the lack of visas and the dangers the workers face.

Her organization has been battling for the victims, and the remaining workers, at the Gainesville plant, where five of the exploited workers died in the blast.

“It’s a very easy link” between lack of protection, no visas, the exploitation, and the explosion, she said.

“We’re not even granted residency in the U.S. until we’re six feet under the ground.”

The lack of work visas is the key to the lack of protection of the workers from that exploitative employer and others, Palacios added. And Biden and Walsh could fix that by opening up eligibility and grants of U-1 visas now via executive order.

That’s important, she added, because the troubled plant reopened only three weeks after the blast, and the remaining migrant workers are still exploited. They still don’t get bathroom breaks, she explained. There are nine exit doors but eight are blocked “by equipment or food products.”

When other accidents occur in the plant, workers are discouraged from going to the hospital, both by intimidation from bosses and by fear of being reported and deported. Gainesville’s Sheriff’s Department is one of those in pro-GOP counties which signed agreements with CIS to arrest and hold any “undocumented” workers until agency agents can arrive to throw them out of the U.S.

“We don’t have green cards, so who wants to incriminate themselves?” she asked. “They’re afraid. The fear is explicit.”

They need the deferred status, similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which Biden reinstated after Trump tried to abolish it. That would not only let the workers stay in the U.S., Palacios said but would allow all the workers—those at the demonstration and the others the groups represent—to blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions.

The federal “OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has been pushing back” against local pressure to ignore violations, Palacios said. “But if Biden issued his executive order” giving visas to the workers, in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and elsewhere, whom the group represents, “He’d have hundreds of complaints on his desk tomorrow” about working conditions.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).