Immigration agents showed up at labor dispute proceedings. California wants to kick them out

Immigration agents showed up at labor dispute proceedings. California wants to kick them out

la-1501723935-ksd9aru7xk-snap-imageBrian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Originally published by Los Angeles Times

Federal immigration agents have shown up twice at California labor dispute proceedings to apprehend undocumented workers, in what state officials believe may be cases of employer retaliation.

The Labor Commissioner’s Office, the state’s labor enforcement arm, said that since November U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at locations in Van Nuys and Santa Ana looking for workers who had brought claims against their employers.

In January, ICE also contacted a state official and asked for details about an ongoing investigation into labor violations at several construction sites across Los Angeles, according to Julie Su, the state’s labor commissioner and the agency’s head.

State officials sent a memo in July instructing staff members to refuse entry to ICE agents who visit its offices to apprehend immigrants who are in the country without authorization.

Staff members should ask federal immigration agents “to leave our office, including the waiting room, and inform the agent[s] that the labor commissioner does not consent to entry or search of any part of our office,” the memo said.

If agents refuse to leave, the memo tells employees, demand a search warrant signed by a judge before allowing them onto the premises.

“There is no doubt that allowing ICE to freely enter our office would have a substantial chilling effect on the willingness of workers to report violations and participate in our fight against wage theft,” Su said in an interview.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE, did not provide specific comments on the action taken by the labor commissioner. But she wrote in an email that ICE officers “conduct targeted enforcement actions every day in locations around the country in accordance with their sworn duty and legal authority to enforce more than 400 federal laws and statutes, including crimes involving labor trafficking and egregious worker exploitation.”

About 35,000 workers a year file claims for back pay at the Labor Commissioner’s Office in California, Su said. Many of those complaints come from people in industries that are heavily dependent on immigrants, such as garment manufacturing, car washing and trucking.

The Labor Commissioner’s Office has 18 offices across the state, where workers can get restitution if they can prove their employer paid them less than the minimum wage. They can also file complaints against bosses who punish them for protesting their conditions.

State law allows workers to report labor violations regardless of their immigration status.

The ICE agents who came to the Van Nuys and Santa Ana offices asked for the specific workers involved in the proceedings by name, and arrived within a half hour of when the meetings with employers were supposed to begin, Su said.

Su said she suspects that the employers being accused of underpaying employees tipped off federal immigration agents about the status of the workers. The timing of wage hearings isn’t public, and generally the worker and employer are the only ones who know that information outside of the agency.

“We should not enable unscrupulous employers who use immigration status as a vulnerability to retaliate unlawfully against a worker who is seeking our protection,” Su said.

Under California’s labor code, it’s illegal for a company to retaliate against employees by calling federal immigration to report their status.

In Van Nuys, the worker who had made a claim for back wages never showed up the day the ICE officer came, and the case was closed. In Santa Ana, the worker had reported retaliation, and the state is still investigating that claim.

Su declined to name the employers in either case, or the construction contractors involved in the investigation that ICE had called about.

She said 58 workers have reported immigration-related threats from bosses to her office so far this year, compared with 14 in all of 2016.

“This is consistent with what we have seen under the Trump Administration, where immigration agents have been going to places like courts,” said Michael Kaufman, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, who said the appearance of ICE agents at labor proceedings was “deeply troubling.”

“ICE should not be used as a tool by employers to go after employees asserting their rights,” Kaufman said.

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