DHS chief directs officials to halt workplace immigration raids

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday directed U.S. immigration authorities to stop mass worksite arrests of undocumented immigrants.

He also said that enforcement efforts should focus on holding “unscrupulous” employers accountable. 

In a memo to immigration agency officials, Mayorkas outlined new enforcement priorities that aim to target employers that exploit unauthorized immigrants. Such employers often pay substandard wages, subject immigrants to unsafe working conditions and facilitate human trafficking and child exploitation, he said. 

He instructed immigration agency officials to develop policies within the next 60 days that carry out the change in enforcement priorities and deliver “more severe” consequences to exploitative employers.

“The deployment of mass worksite operations, sometimes resulting in the simultaneous arrest of hundreds of workers, was not focused on the most pernicious aspect of our country’s unauthorized employment challenge: exploitative employers,” Mayorkas wrote in a memo to several immigration agency officials. 

Tuesday’s action is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to narrow the scope of who can be arrested and detained by U.S. immigration officials. Last month, for example, the administration announced that immigration authorities would no longer deport people solely because they are undocumented. 

There are more than 7 million undocumented immigrants working in the U.S., according to a report released by the Center for American Progress in December 2020. 

Undocumented immigrants make up 13% of all construction workers and approximately 8.4% of all workers in the accommodation and food services industry, the report said. They also account for 10% of the administrative and support and waste management industries, and 25% of the workers in farming, fishing and forestry occupations.

Mayorkas’ announcement signals a departure from former President Donald Trump’s approach to workplace immigration raids. In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 700 undocumented workers at food processing plants in Mississippi. It was the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history. 

In addition to ending worksite raids, Mayorkas outlined efforts to protect unauthorized immigrants who witness or are victims of labor exploitation and abuse. 

He directed immigration agency officials to refrain from placing such immigrants in deportation proceedings and to consider granting them temporary legal status. Mayorkas said such actions would encourage unauthorized immigrants to cooperate with federal law enforcement. 

Mayorkas also instructed immigration agency officials to ensure that E-Verify, an online government program that allows employers to check the immigration status of prospective employees, is not used to retaliate against workers who report illegally low wages or unsafe working conditions.

By targeting employers instead of unauthorized employees, Mayorkas said the U.S. could establish a fairer labor market and benefit businesses that compete with employers that exploit unauthorized immigrants.

“We can most effectively protect the American labor market, the conditions of the American worksite, and the dignity of the individual by focusing our worksite enforcement efforts on unscrupulous employers,” Mayorkas wrote in the memo. “This is how we will proceed.”

Some immigration advocates welcomed the policy update.

The National Immigration Law Center said in a statement that Mayorkas’ announcement “signals pivotal changes ahead that will make workplaces across the country safer and more equitable for all workers and finally puts an end to deeply harmful worksite raids.”

“This move will also ensure those immigrants working in schools, factories, meatpacking plants, hospitals, construction sites, and other essential industries can do their jobs safely and speak out against unjust treatment without fearing employer intimidation, arrest, or deportation,” the organization said in the statement.

However, Mayorkas’ announcement is likely to trigger backlash from congressional Republicans, who view the Biden administration’s limits on immigration arrests as a factor that has driven the 20-year-high surge in migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To address the surge, the administration has continued to use Title 42, a Trump-era public health policy that deports migrants without giving them the chance to apply for asylum. Unaccompanied children are exempt.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided in August that Title 42 would remain in place until it determines that there is no longer a danger of Covid-19 being brought across the border into the U.S.


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