WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will halt massive work site immigration raids while it prepares policies offering deportation protection to undocumented immigrants who report their employers for labor abuses, according to an agency memo released Tuesday.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in his memo that immigration agents would no longer conduct immigration sweeps at work sites, where hundreds of people suspected of working without authorization can be arrested at once.
These raids are “not focused on the most pernicious aspect of our country’s unauthorized employment challenge: exploitative employers,” Mayorkas wrote in a memo to the leaders of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
These types of enforcement actions can also chill or even be used “as a tool of retaliation” for undocumented workers who cooperate with labor investigations against their employers, he said.
Mayorkas also instructed immigration agency officials to, within 60 days, develop proposals to encourage witnesses and victims of labor trafficking to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement. These plans should “provide for the consideration of deferred action, continued presence, parole, and other available relief for noncitizens” who report abuses, a reference to various forms of legal protections from deportation.
The agencies should also consider ways to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not placed into deportation proceedings while investigations continue, Mayorkas said.
“We will not tolerate unscrupulous employers who exploit unauthorized workers, conduct illegal activities, or impose unsafe working conditions. Employers engaged in illegal acts compel the focus of our enforcement resources,” Mayorkas said in a Tuesday statement.
The memo is part of the administration’s stated effort to crack down on employers who violate U.S. labor law.
President Joe Biden has for years been a vocal supporter of labor movements and unions. He issued a stark pro-union statement during the unsuccessful union drive among Amazon workers in Alabama and nominated former Boston mayor and union leader Marty Walsh to lead the Department of Labor.
The memo also signals a departure from the immigration enforcement priorities of the Trump administration, which ramped up the use of work site immigration raids, particularly in the Southeast.
In 2019, under the prior administration, ICE conducted the largest raid in the agency’s history when it arrested nearly 700 workers at poultry processing plants across Mississippi in a single day.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the Homeland Security Committee chair whose home state was targeted in those immigration raids, praised Tuesday’s action.
“The previous Administration too often carried out raids that tore apart communities but allowed employers to continue exploiting workers,” Thompson said in a statement. “Refocusing resources to counter exploitative employers is a necessary step in protecting the American labor market and workers.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a key player in congressional immigration talks, called the memo “an important step in safeguarding the safety and well-being of undocumented workers” and stressed the contributions of undocumented essential employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The memo comes less than a month after ICE released its final guidance narrowing enforcement priorities to focus resources on migrants who recently crossed the border and on immigrants who threaten national security or public safety.
That Sept. 30 guidance also prohibited immigration enforcement from being used to retaliate against noncitizens exercising workplace or tenant rights, previewing Tuesday’s memo.
Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, praised the changes as “a paradigm shift away from targeting undocumented workers to holding accountable the unscrupulous employers.” Hincapié previously co-chaired the immigration unit of the Biden-Sanders unity task force.
The 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,” she said in a statement.
Caroline Simon contributed to this report.