A new Economic Policy Institute report reveals the massive funding disparity between immigration enforcement and labor standards enforcement. Based on funding levels, the top U.S. federal law enforcement priority is to detain, deport, and prosecute migrants, while protecting workplace safety and ensuring that workers get paid what they earn are afterthoughts in comparison.
In 2021, Congress appropriated $25 billion to enforce immigration laws—nearly 12 times the $2.1 billion provided to enforce labor standards, even though the latter is used to protect 144 million workers employed at nearly 11 million workplaces. The average annual amount appropriated for immigration enforcement over the past decade was $23.4 billion compared with $2.2 billion for labor standards enforcement.
Labor enforcement agencies are staffed at only a fraction of the levels required to adequately fulfill their missions. In 2021, immigration enforcement agencies employed nearly 79,000 personnel, compared with the 10 labor standards enforcement agencies combined, which employed fewer than 9,400. Over the past decade, annual immigration enforcement staffing levels have been an average of 618% higher than staffing for labor standards enforcement.
“This situation leaves migrant workers especially vulnerable to employer lawbreaking. There are not enough federal agents to police employers, while a massive immigration enforcement dragnet threatens workers with deportation,” said Daniel Costa, EPI director of immigration law and policy research and author of the report. “Employers take advantage of the climate of fear this creates to prevent workers from reporting workplace abuses. Workers who find the courage to speak up can be retaliated against in ways that can set the deportation process in motion.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can encourage workers to speak out and help labor standards enforcement agencies hold lawbreaking employers accountable without fear of retaliation by their bosses and ultimately deportation. DHS can accomplish this through an expanded use of prosecutorial discretion to protect migrant workers involved across a broad range of labor and workplace disputes, by issuing them temporary grants of deferred action or parole coupled with employment authorization. In November, EPI and more than 330 organizations sent a letter calling for DHS to clarify such a policy to protect migrant workers who are in labor disputes and whistleblowers.
“As International Migrants Day approaches this week on December 18, it should serve as a reminder to President Biden that he has the requisite legal authority to protect migrant workers, especially the most vulnerable, including temporary migrant workers and those who lack an immigration status,” Costa said. “DHS using prosecutorial discretion to protect workers would boost the efforts of understaffed labor enforcement agencies and assist them in carrying out their missions.”
Congress can and should take action as well by narrowing the funding disparity between immigration enforcement and labor standards enforcement agencies. A dramatic increase in appropriated funding for labor standards enforcement agencies would allow the agencies to conduct more investigations and keep pace with the number of workers they are in charge of protecting, and thus enhance their ability to hold many more lawbreaking employers accountable.
Congress should also prioritize the reintroduction and passage of the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act, a piece of legislation that would help prevent and combat employer retaliation and the deportation of migrant workers with valid workplace claims or who were witnesses to workplace violations.