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On the Exploitation of Immigrant Workers in Gulf Coast

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Immigrants' Rights Update, Vol. 20, Issue 1, March 23, 2006

Exploitation, Abuse of Immigrant Workers in Gulf Coast is Main Topic in Advocates' Meetings with ICE and DOL Officials

By Monica Guizar and Marielena Hincapié

Problems faced by immigrant workers in the Gulf Coast, including worksite raids by immigration authorities and exploitation by dodgy employers, were the main topics raised by representatives of several national and local immigrants' rights groups and labor organizations when they met earlier this year with officials from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL).

During a Jan. 30 meeting with officials from ICE, representatives from the AFL-CIO, Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), National Council of La Raza (NCLR), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and NILC discussed their concerns about reports that the agency has been increasing worksite enforcement activities and immigration raids in the Gulf Coast.  While ICE officials denied that there had been any such increase in enforcement activities in the region, they committed to working with the DOL to develop a process whereby ICE will determine, before it deports any worker detained in the region by immigration authorities, whether the worker has unpaid wage claims. ICE officials also pledged to keep advocates updated as to the implementation of this process.

Many of the advocates who met with ICE officials, along with representatives from Interfaith Worker Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center, and local groups such as the Loyola Law School in New Orleans and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), also met with officials from the DOL on Feb. 2. The goal of the meeting, which was held at the agency's Washington, DC, office, was to share information and to work with the DOL to develop a process of expediting wage claims filed in the Gulf Coast. The local advocates painted for the DOL a picture of lawlessness in the region, featuring unscrupulous contractors and rampant labor violations.  In the course of the meeting, advocates made clear that outreach to workers by the DOL is imperative if the hundreds of thousands of workers being exploited on a daily basis are to stand any chance of being protected from these practices.

Advocates also expressed concern with the inadequacy of staffing and resources currently allocated to the two local DOL offices in Louisiana and Mississippi. But advocates left the meeting with assurances that the DOL will take concrete steps to increase its resources in the Gulf region. One week later, a representative of the DOL reported to NILC, which had convened the meeting, that the DOL had already met internally to discuss ways to address the issues raised by advocates.
NILC will work closely with local advocates to continue monitoring the effectiveness of the DOL's efforts to ensure that workers in the Gulf Coast are being paid for their work, as required by law. Similarly, NILC will monitor ICE's activities to assess what political or legal strategies may be necessary to protect immigrants' civil and human rights. Despite the agency's denials, reports by local advocates and media indicate that immigration enforcement in the Gulf region has been on the rise.