The dispute should have been simple to resolve. A maid working for a Silicon Valley cleaning agency wasn’t paid for all the hours she worked. She asked her boss for the back wages, but never received it. So, she filed a claim with state regulators.
Instead of paying what he owed, the employer left the woman a threatening voicemail, according to Ruth Silver-Taube, the attorney working on her case. In the recorded message, she says, the boss threatened to report the woman to federal immigration authorities.
Regulators who enforce California labor laws say these kinds of claims are on the rise. Complaints alleging immigration-related workplace retaliation saw a significant uptick, according to the Labor Commissioner’s Office. In 2017, workers throughout the state filed 95 immigration-related retaliation claims with the agency. That’s up from 20 in 2016 and just seven the year before that.
Santa Clara County alone saw a 13-fold increase last year, up from a single claim in 2016.
Some of the local cases involve bosses who allegedly threatened to report their employees to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after they raised concerns about wage theft or other working conditions. Silver-Taube—a Santa Clara University law professor who coordinates the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition—says another claim involves an employer who threatened a woman with both deportation and losing her subsidized housing.
“The employer also went to her husband’s workplace and said the same thing,” Silver-Taube tells San Jose Inside.
Undocumented immigrants have long faced these kinds of threats. But advocates say the surge in such cases shows how President Donald Trump’s nativist rhetoric has emboldened employers seeking to exploit vulnerable workers.
Laws that went into effect in 2014 explicitly prohibit immigration-related retaliation, which may also have led to some of the increase in these types of complaints as workers become more aware of their rights. Silver-Taube says it should be noted, however, that undocumented immigrants remain far less likely to report labor violations in the present cultural climate.
Indeed, ICE has become decidedly more political under Trump. Over the past year, the federal immigration agency has openly retaliated against so-called sanctuary jurisdictions by conducting massive raids in those areas. Just this month, ICE agents descended on a Santa Clara 7-Eleven as part of a nationwide sweep that netted 21 arrests.
While there have been fewer deportations recorded under the Trump administration than his predecessor, the past year has seen a surge in collateral detentions of people with no criminal record or only minor infractions, according to ICE’s own statistics. In the past year, arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal records more than doubled to 37,000-plus.
The agency’s new directive has encouraged more people to use ICE as a way to snitch on workers, family members and complete strangers. That’s been apparent in phone logs for a victim hotline launched by ICE in the past year and, according to new data obtained by San Jose Inside through formal records requests, in the number of retaliation cases fielded by the state labor commissioner’s office.
California’s top cop this month warned employers that they could face legal repercussions if they unlawfully aid federal immigration agents.
“[I]f they voluntarily start giving up information about their employees or access to their employees in ways that contradict our new California laws, they subject themselves to actions by my office,” state Attorney General Xavier Becerra told reporters at a news conference two weeks ago. “We will prosecute those who violate the law.”
Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) also urged companies to remember their obligations under AB 450, which went into effect on Jan. 1 and requires immigration agents to produce a judicial warrant before setting foot into the private areas of a worksite. It also requires employers to give their workers a 72-hour warning before allowing ICE to inspect personnel records.
While the federal agencies take their marching orders from Trump, their counterparts in the Golden State have continued to uphold anti-discrimination protections.
“What’s happening right now is really frightening,” Silver-Taube says. “But thankfully we have some good protections in place.”
Sections 244 and 1019 of the California Labor Code expressly prohibit immigration-related threats. That includes threatening to report the immigration status of any current, prospective or former employees—or that of any of their relatives. Those sections of the state labor code also prevents employers from requesting documentation above and beyond what’s required by federal immigration law and from refusing to accept documentation that reasonably appears to be genuine.
Sustained findings of immigration-related workplace retaliation results in penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. The labor commissioner’s office conducts investigations into suspected violations and issues cause or no-cause findings. If an employer fails to pay a judgment, the state can take them to court to collect it.