DHS Guidelines Give Protection from Deportation to Undocumented Workers Who Report Labor Violations

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If an employer hires undocumented workers, are they covered under the U.S. employment laws? Initially, employers must complete Form I-9s for all new employees and cannot hire workers who are unable to establish that they’re authorized to work. But once hired, the script flips and undocumented workers generally enjoy the same legal protections as the rest of the workforce (e.g., Title VII, FLSA, etc.). Undocumented workers, however, are often reluctant to make complaints to or cooperate in investigations with the EEOC, the Department of Labor, or other labor agencies, even when they have a legitimate beef with their employer. Why? It may be at least in part because they fear that they’ll be hauled into immigration court and deported. But now, the Biden administration has given those workers a possible safety valve. 

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security released guidelines providing a process for undocumented workers to seek deferred action from removal (deportation) when they report a violation to a labor agency or cooperate in an agency investigation. In some circumstances, the individuals who utilize this process may also be eligible for temporary work authorization. Although each request for deferred action will be decided on a case-by-case basis, it’s clear that the purpose of this new process is to encourage undocumented workers to report labor violations and assist with agency investigations.     

How Does the Process Work?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will manage the process using a centralized intake system. If an undocumented worker makes a complaint to the EEOC, the DOL, or other labor agency, or assists the agency with an investigation, that worker can request deferred action from removal by submitting certain required documents. Among other things, the worker must submit his or her own statement setting forth the basis for the request, as well as a supporting “statement of interest” from the involved labor agency. According to the guidelines, the agency’s “statement of interest” should provide details about the nature of its investigation, how the worker may be helpful to that investigation, and how granting the worker’s request for deferred action would support the agency’s enforcement interests.

If the worker is already in removal proceedings or subject to an order of removal, the request for deferred action will be forwarded to ICE for determination. Otherwise, USCIS will adjudicate the request. Either way, USCIS or ICE will exercise its discretion on a case-by-case basis. In certain cases, the interested agency may also ask that the worker’s request be adjudicated on an expedited basis. 

If an undocumented worker’s request is approved, the grant of deferred action will normally be good for two years, although it is subject to termination at any time. When submitting the request, the worker may also apply for temporary employment authorization on USCIS Form I-765. Approved applications for employment authorization, while not guaranteed, will typically allow the individual to work for the entire period of deferred action. Subsequent requests to extend the worker’s deferred action can be made if the labor agency continues to have an investigative or enforcement interest in the worker’s matter.

What’s the Practical Impact?

This is less clear. Will undocumented workers take advantage of this new process in significant numbers? The guidelines offer some potential protection, but the approval of an individual worker’s request is not automatic and, even if approved, the grant of deferred action is temporary.  Notably, the guidelines do not provide any long-term path to lawful status. And, because the guidelines have been issued without Congressional or regulatory action, they are subject both to being challenged in the courts and to being revoked in two years if there’s a change in the White House. Will undocumented workers feel comfortable using this process in the face of all this uncertainty? Stay tuned.