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Lawmakers Must Emphasize Labor Standards in the Immigration Reform Debate

This week’s news cycle has been packed with immigration-related stories. Immigration policy reform is finally moving in Congress, and creating a road map to citizenship for 11 million immigrants living in the United States is becoming a top priority for lawmakers. In the political negotiations, some lawmakers also have demanded enhanced border controls and other enforcement measures.

In the immigration policy debate, however, the issue of labor protections is too often overlooked, or only given a passing mention, even though they should be a top concern. Immigrant workers are often employed in exploitative, low-wage industries and subject to threats, abuse and wage theft. Funding for labor law enforcement, for both immigrant and native-born workers, is seriously lacking and that brings wages and standards down for everyone.

Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute put these legislative priorities in stark contrast in a recent blog. Building on a report by the Migration Policy Institute, Costa and EPI looked at the budgets of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Costa writes:

Analyzing the most recent federal budget data available, EPI has found that even when including additional federal agencies whose primary purpose is to enforce labor standards (the Mine Safety and Health Administration [MSHA], the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs [OFCCP] and the National Mediation Board [NMB]), in 2012, the total amount Congress appropriated to enforce labor laws and regulations amounted to only $1.6 billion—about 9 percent of what was spent enforcing immigration laws last year.

In total, the WHD, OSHA, OFCCP, NMB, MSHA and NLRB employ fewer than 9,000 people, while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s two main immigration enforcement agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—have a budget of $17.2 billion and together employ more than 80,000 people.

According to Costa, “the Wage and Hour Division, in particular, has a herculean task: With only about 1,100 inspectors, they are responsible for protecting over 135,000,000 workers in more than 7,300,000 establishments throughout the United States and its territories.” This is particularly disturbing as a 2009 study of the three largest U.S. cities alone—Chicago, Los Angeles and New York—revealed that workers lost more than $56 million per week due to wage theft, mainly in low-wage industries with many immigrant workers. 

Furthermore, a lack of funding for OSHA and other safety programs leads to widespread indifference toward worker safety. As EPI notes, “an average of 23,000 on-the-job injuries occur every day across the United States, and there were 9,300 fatal work injuries in 2010 and 2011 combined.”

While border security cannot be ignored, it should not serve as a substitute for enforcing labor standards. Labor law enforcement has an enormous impact on the lives of working families, regardless of where they came from. Costa’s blog is a timely reminder that lawmakers need to emphasize labor law enforcement as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.

Read more of EPI’s analysis of immigration issues.

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