This country has a long history of businesses and contractors who try to deprive workers of the protections and benefits they are entitled to under the law. Abuses are more rampant where immigrant workers are involved. Unscrupulous employers frequently use the threat of deportation to force workers into silence. This imbalance of power harms workers who toil in the shadows.
Most workers are unaware of their rights. For example, many workers are not aware that DC has a minimum wage law that just increased in July 2015 to $10.50 an hour. Workers have rights to safe working conditions. Employers must comply with labor and human rights laws. Many DC immigrant workers do not know that they have free access to many medical services through the DC Alliance program which serves low-income District residents who not eligible for either Medicaid or Medicare.
Finding brochures and user friendly pamphlets in Spanish and other languages are critical for workers who do not speak English. Bilingual TUWDC staff help explain the way labor laws work and provide support for workers who are afraid to come forward. The DC Office of Human Rights encourages workers to file discrimination complaints, but many workers do not understand how the process works.
Despite the laws that protect workers rights, inadequate enforcement is often the sad reality. Given the immigration status, lack of English proficiency, and complex employment arrangements of sub-contractors, these low-wage workers have to organize to demand compliance with the law. Organizing for better treatment can produce results, but building relationships with labor and other stakeholders are critical to changing abusive economic structures.
One point is clear: the wave of immigrants – legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled – has stimulated enormous economic activity in the District of Columbia. Immigrants are making important contributions to the DC economy and social fabric. The District’s foreign-born population is estimated at 100,000, or 15.4% of the total population. In 2012 it was estimated that Washington DC was home to approximately 20,000 undocumented residents (Source: Pew Hispanic Center). Unauthorized workers constitute 4.1% of DC’s labor force, as compared to 6.7% in Maryland. “New Americans” — immigrants and the children of immigrants – account for 10.5% of registered voters in the District of Columbia. Unauthorized immigrants paid $25.6 million in state and local taxes in 2010, including $16.8 million in sales taxes, $5.5 million in state income taxes, and $3.3 million in property taxes, according to data from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.
Despite the billions in immigrant consumer purchasing power and the many small businesses they own, D.C. immigrants suffer from the federal government’s broken immigration system. As efforts to overhaul the United States immigration laws have stalled, local governments are forced to take action to protect hard-working, undocumented immigrants from deportation. Below is a summary of various policy options and proposed initiatives:
- DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents): Two “deferred action” Executive Actions initiated by President Obama include DACA and DAPA. DACA provides temporary relief from deportation for children who entered the US before January 2010 and are enrolled in school or have graduated from high school. The filing fee is $465. The DAPA program for parents with US-born citizen children or permanent resident children was announced in late 2014. However, a federal court judge has temporarily blocked the implementation of this program. The federal government will not process any applicants until courts rule. Despite this setback, it is still important for immigrants to gather tax returns, rent receipts, children’s birth certificates, police records and other evidence to prove that they are eligible to qualify.
It is estimated that 160,000-200,000 unauthorized immigrants would be eligible to apply for deportation relief if expansion of DACA and implementation of DAPA are permitted. Educating area immigrants about these programs is a challenge. Helping immigrants assemble their information and overcome fears about revealing their status to the authorities is critical. Outreach efforts and legal services are required for these programs to be a success. Community members need to be aware of immigration fraud, particularly individuals or lawyers who promise to help you apply for “deferred action”. Beware of fraud: It is important not to trust anyone who says they can get you a spot in the front of the line for a fee.
- Deportation following arrests: Continued vigilance is required to ensure that ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) program that succeeds Secure Communities does not allow local authorities to use fingerprint checks after an arrest to lead to deportation and separate established families. In 2011 the DC City Council passed “The Immigration Detainer Compliance Amendment Act”. This law restricts the circumstances when local jails may exercise immigration detainers. An immigration detainer is a request made by federal immigration authorities to a local law enforcement agency to hold an individual after he would otherwise be released for transfer to the immigration detention and deportation system. A detainer is not a warrant or a judicial order; it indicates only a possible civil immigration violation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself maintains that detainers are merely requests that are not binding on local jurisdictions.
One important issue for all immigrants is the need for stronger protections for workers against exploitation and abuse. Such protections would help rid the system of bottom-feeding employers who hire and underpay and otherwise exploit cheap immigrant labor, dragging down wages and workplace standards for everyone. Immigration reform could provide a legal path to many workers. The benefits of legalizing these workers far outweighs keeping them outside the law. If immigrant workers are free to assert their rights without fear, to bargain collectively and blow the whistle on bad employers, all workers will benefit, too.
DC Limited Purpose Drivers License
A driver’s license is an economic lifeline to a worker who must commute to his job or take his or her American-born children to school. TUWDC played a central role in advocating for DC drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. In 2013 the DC City Council finally passed legislation (DC Drivers Amendment Safety Act of 2013) enabling DC residents to apply for a driver’s license of ID card, regardless of immigration status. With a driver’s license immigrants who qualify can now insure and register their vehicles, thus improving public safety. DMV rules require that an applicant must be a resident of the District of Columbia for six months. These “Limited Purpose Drivers’ Licenses” (LPDL) do not allow the person to use the document to access federal programs or board airlines.
Since May 2014 when the law was implemented, few applicants have received licenses. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Director, over 80% of the applicants who take the written knowledge driving manual test in their own language have failed. Furthermore, there is a huge backlog of 6,000 applicants. The problems are myriad:
- Applicants must apply on-line and often have to wait six months to secure DMV appointments
- If an applicant fails to qualify or is missing key documents, the applicant must make a second appointment which can take another six months
- Many front-line staff do not speak Spanish and have not been trained properly to accommodate this new class of applicant
TUWDC has led a coalition to address these issues. Worked together with community-based organizations, TUWDC has met with government officials to bring attention to some of the problems facing applicants for the LPDL license. The DMV must improve the training of front-line staff and hire more bilingual, bicultural frontline staff. Prior to the initial DMV interview, applicants need to study the Driving Manual which is administered during the first DMV visit. One of the problems has been that the Manual, which has been translated in Spanish, is only available on-line.
In April 2015 the DMV, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs (OLA) and the Office of Human Rights (OHR) held a training with community-based leaders. The goal was to improve the effectiveness and outcomes of the license credentialing process. Overcoming existing barriers to obtaining drivers’ licenses is a strategic goal for TUWDC.