Giving Voice to the Silenced: The POWER Act as a Legislative Remedy to the Fears Facing Undocumented Employees Exercising Their Workplace Rights

By Elie Peltz

Undocumented workers in the United States number nearly eight million and are key contributors to major industries and regional economies across the country. Yet undocumented workers often hesitate to report labor law violations due to the fear of making themselves known to immigration authorities. In recent years, employers have felt emboldened to ignore the labor rights of undocumented workers amidst a political climate marked by anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased government monitoring of immigrants. Although federal, state, and local law all provide criminal and civil remedies for undocumented workers who have experienced workplace violations, these forms of relief do not protect undocumented workers from their greatest fear — deportation. Consequently, many undocumented workers continue to suffer workplace abuse in silence.

This Note explores two complementary federal government reforms to insulate undocumented workers who report workplace abuse from deportation: 1) expansion of the U nonimmigrant status visa program, and 2) restriction of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s ability to deport individuals who have pending actions against employers. This Note then analyzes proposed legislation that fixes the shortcomings of these attempts at reform: The Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act (POWER Act), most recently introduced in Congress in November of 2019. Finally, given enforcement trends that emerged under the Trump Administration, this Note critically assesses the viability of the POWER Act and considers ways to bolster the legislation’s protections for undocumented workers.

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