San Francisco—If immigration agents show up at a worksite, employers don't have to let them in.
That is one of the key messages immigrant rights advocates are sending out as a new bill that would increase protections for workers makes its way through committees in the California legislature.
Employers across the country already have certain rights, said Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC). "If an employer has ICE agents coming to their workplace, so long as the workplace is private property, they should also keep ICE agents out…unless they have an ICE warrant," she said.
Ruiz spoke on a national press call last week hosted by New America Media and Ready California.
Proposed legislation in California would go a step further in protecting workers and helping employers navigate what happens when ICE agents show up at their business.
Under the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, AB 450 (David Chiu, D-San Francisco), employers would be required to ask for a warrant before they allow immigration enforcement agents onto the worksite. They would not be able to hand over any private information about workers, such as social security numbers, without a subpoena.
"We might not, in the state of California, be able to tell ICE what to do," said Michael Young, legislative advocate with the California Labor Federation which, together with SEIU California, sponsored AB 450. "We can't regulate federal immigration law. But we can regulate employer behavior. We can say that employers have an obligation to protect their workers and they have to take certain actions to make sure those rights are protected."
Nearly 2.6 million undocumented immigrants live in California, and one in 10 workers in the state is undocumented, according to Young. In some industries, this number is even higher. Forty-five percent of agricultural workers and 21 percent of construction workers in California are undocumented.
This is a large number of people who "could be at risk from worksite raids, and these raids are already happening in the state," said Young.
Increase in Enforcement Actions
The Trump administration's "laser focus" on immigration enforcement has not been accompanied by a change in tactics, noted Ruiz of ILRC.
Cooperation between immigration enforcement and local law officials "continues to be the number one way that individuals are identified and placed in removal proceedings," she said. ICE is also continuing individualized enforcement, for example going to the home of a specific person they are looking for, and then picking up other people in that home.
But it's important to remember that everyone, regardless of immigration status, is protected by Constitutional rights, Ruiz continued, including the right to remain silent, to not allow agents into their home or work without a warrant signed by a judge, and to not sign anything before talking to an immigration attorney.
"Trump does not have the resources to go after and deport all 11 some-odd million undocumented people, plus, in the US," she said. "The likelihood of him picking up the random person, especially who's never had contact with ICE, is actually quite low." And even if they do get picked up by ICE, she said, "Many people will have a chance to fight their case."
Anti-immigrant rhetoric has led to a palpable fear among immigrants, who may now be making decisions based on that fear.
"The irony of all of this is that for many people, that fear may be the greatest impact, in a way," Ruiz said. "The fear is affecting people at all levels."
Economic Impact of Fear
Cal Soto, national workers rights coordinator at the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) described the mood among day laborers as timid and cautious.
"What I've seen is a ton of people who regularly might have made health and safety or wage claims, or filed police reports, saying, 'It's not worth it for me,'" said Soto.
He added, "This has an impact on the wages they're able to negotiate, and the wages of everybody in the community."
It also may have a chilling effect on consumer spending.
"People are not buying homes. They're not building their business," said Mohan Kanungo, director of programs and engagement at Mission Asset Fund. "And that certainly has a large impact that I think remains to be seen for us to quantify."
Soto described anti-immigrant rhetoric and intimidation as a "campaign to frighten immigrant workers into the shadows and out of the public eye."
Instead of hiding, he said, immigrant workers must gain knowledge and defense strategies.
Three Steps to Take Now
The Mission Asset Fund recently released a Financial Emergency Action Plan for Immigrants, which gives families and business owners practical tips about how to protect their assets in uncertain times.
First, families can take action to protect their money. This includes opening or maintaining a checking account to have access to funds when needed; setting up online bill pay to make sure bills get paid on time, even if you are detained; different ways to share your checking account with those you trust; setting up online transfers so you can easily wire someone money if you need to; and making sure you are protected from overdraft fees.
Second, families can take steps to protect their belongings, including their car, property and business.
"People are coming to us, asking, 'How can I give someone control of my business if I am detained?'" said Kanungo. "That's where we talk a lot about powers of attorney … What can you do now to protect your property or give someone else the ability to make decisions over your property?"
Third, families can take steps to plan for an emergency by protecting their credit, and creating savings goals. So that it doesn't feel overwhelming, Kanungo suggests starting by saving up a small amount, such as enough money for a month's worth of groceries, and working up to putting aside enough money to pay for legal fees that one could incur in case of detention.
"It's not just about the burden of the immigration-related costs," said Kanungo, "but the dual burden that comes up with maintaining a household with a loss of income from a family member."
Michael Young of the California Labor Federation hopes that California lawmakers will enact greater protections for immigrant workers in the state.
"We want to make sure we can get these laws and protections on the books as soon as possible," he said, "to protect as many workers as we can."
AB 450 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, July 12, with a vote of 5-2. It will next go to Senate Appropriations Committee in late August.