NEW YORK — For people in the U.S. illegally, speaking up about missing wages can come at a big cost: deportation. Authorities and advocates say that since President Donald Trump’s 2016 election they’ve seen an increase in reports of dodgy bosses threatening to call federal immigration agents on workers.
In New York, where the labor department says it has investigated at least 30 cases in the last three years involving threats to a worker’s immigration status, the attorney general on Wednesday urged legislators to make clear such practices are illegal.
Attorney General Letitia James is proposing legislation to sharpen the language of an existing law, which bars employers from firing, threatening, penalizing or otherwise discriminating against workers who report or blow the whistle on wage violations.
James’ legislation would expand the law’s definition of retaliatory conduct to include threats regarding a person’s immigration status. Potential punishments would remain the same: up to three months in jail and a $20,000 fine.
The state labor department has been using existing law to impose civil and regulatory penalties on employers accused of threatening a worker’s immigration status. Labor advocates say James should go further and push lawmakers to make it a felony offense.
“New York State was built by immigrants and it has always stood proudly as a beacon of hope and opportunity no matter where you were born,” said James, a Democrat. “If President Trump is going to demonize immigrants and unscrupulous employers are going to exploit them, we’re ready to fight back against them.”
Trump, in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, renewed his call for a border wall and cast illegal immigration as a threat to Americans’ safety and economic security.
James’ proposal comes after a maid at Trump’s New Jersey golf club said a supervisor threatened her with deportation if she complained about allegedly abusive working conditions .
The Trump Organization said it investigated the woman’s allegations and that they are “absolutely false.”
“A thorough investigation into these claims was conducted immediately after they were brought to our attention,” the company said. “No evidence was found to substantiate these allegations.”
In New York, under the existing law, the labor department has been fining employers up to $10,000 and ordering them to pay victimized workers up to $20,000 in damages for immigration-related retaliation and discrimination.
Over the last three years, New York’s labor department has imposed at least $250,000 in penalties and damages against employers for retaliation because of immigration status, according to Jim Rogers, the deputy commissioner for worker protection. Many offending businesses are in the service, agriculture and construction industries, Rogers said.
“There is a flood of that kind of harassment in the workplace,” Rogers said. “We protect every single worker who works in New York, regardless of their citizenship or their documentation status. Everybody gets the same protections. But people don’t know that, and they live under a lot of fear.”
James’ office says it has received numerous reports of employers threatening to have workers deported for speaking up. One employer is accused of withholding pay from his workers for weeks and then threatening to report them to immigration authorities when they confronted him about it.
Rogers said fearful workers are asking labor investigators to hold off on allegations until they move to a new home because employers and coworkers could have their addresses and report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“They are scared of ICE and they don’t want to take any action that might anger an unscrupulous employer,” Rogers said. “So they ask us, ‘please wait I am going to move next week.’ That never used to happen.”