This fall, a high-stakes immigration bill will test D.C.’s commitment to safeguarding undocumented workers’ rights. The Protecting Immigrants from Extortion Amendment Act will be discussed at a public hearing held by the D.C. Council on October 4.
The bill, proposed by Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, would protect undocumented employees by extending the legal definition of extortion to encompass threatening an employee with reporting their undocumented status to immigration authorities.
Unauthorized immigrants often suffer various abuses by their employers, including being paid less than the minimum wage and having to work extensive hours, under the ultimatum of being reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As it stands, the bill sets the maximum fine for violators at $10,000, and has provisions for a 10-year prison sentence.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates D.C.’s unauthorized immigrant population at 27,000, with 26 percent from El Salvador, and 7 percent from Mexico. Some 73 percent are employed, with one quarter working in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services.
The District is one of many “sanctuary cities” that has policies in place to provide refuge to undocumented immigrants and discourage local authorities from fully cooperating with U.S. immigration authorities. In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to cut off federal funding to these jurisdictions. A federal appeals court in California deemed the order unconstitutional but was unable to justify a nationwide injunction.
One potential pitfall of the proposed legislation is undocumented employees’ reluctance to turn to law enforcement in general. Manny Geraldo, part of the Councilmember’s legal team that worked on the bill, told The DC Post, “Because of what’s going on at the federal level, even though DC is a sanctuary city, we understand that certain people do have fears.”
Geraldo said he’s hoping to hear more about immigrants’ concerns at the hearing. “We would hope that they would come forward, we would hope that they would be a part of it. We want to hear from advocates and people who have been in similar situations.”
Abel Nuñez, the Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center Carecen, a D.C. community-based Latino development organization, told The DC Post he also expects the current political environment to pose a problem in getting people to come forward, “primarily because of how the federal government, and our current president talks about immigration, and also the policies that they are approving, which in totality makes it a very hostile environment.”
Nuñez said one of Carecen’s primary concerns is a large number of immigrants living and working in D.C. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The status is given to eligible nationals from specific countries that are typically affected by natural disasters or armed conflict. Recipients are permitted to live and work in the United States for a limited amount of time. Over the summer, the Trump Administration began announcing the end of TPS programs for various countries, affecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants. 32,359 Salvadorans with TPS living in D.C. are expected to lose their status by September 2019.
According to Nuñez, ending the TPS program is unlikely to have the administration’s intended effect of reducing immigrants present in the United States. “They’re not, unfortunately, going to leave and return back to their countries of origin. What will happen is, they’re going to try to re-engage back into the workforce. They’re going to figure out how to go back into the shadows, and to places where they are more vulnerable.”
Despite, the national political climate, the District has a duty to own up to its title as a sanctuary city.
“I always say that sanctuary city is just a tagline, really…So in and of itself, [the bill] is not the panacea, but it adds to a lot of other things the city is trying to do, and we’re working with them every day to make sure they have a clear picture, and if there are any other policies they should be looking at. But, at least, this is one step forward,” Nuñez said.