Boston-area legal advocates warn that the Trump administration’s new crackdown on illegal immigration will have the additional consequence of giving more power to employers who underpay undocumented workers and subject them to unsafe conditions.
Recent memos from the Department of Homeland Security secretary have given immigration officials broad latitude to arrest and deport people who are in the country illegally. While officials say the priority for now is to focus on gangs and people with serious criminal records, thousands of workers in construction, child care, house cleaning, and the restaurant industry could become more vulnerable to mistreatment by unscrupulous employers who might threaten to turn them in to authorities if they complain.
“It’s really going to give license to bad employers to make threats of deportation,’’ said Brian Flynn, head of the employment law unit at the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services. Already, he said, workers fearing retaliation are less likely to report employers who fail to pay minimum wage or overtime or who commit other violations. “We’re just not seeing as many workers come forward right now.”
The Trump edicts threaten to roll back years of progress in the fight for workers’ rights in Massachusetts, where officials have been working since 2015 to inform domestic workers, such as nannies and housekeepers, of their rights to minimum wages and time off, regardless of their status. State Attorney General Maura Healey also has filed lawsuits against construction firms and other employers for misclassifying workers as contractors, instead of employees, to avoid paying them benefits.
Healey, in a statement Wednesday, lashed out at the deportation directives.
“President Trump’s reckless mass deportation scheme will make our communities less safe and waste billions of taxpayer dollars,’’ she said. Federal agents under the Obama administration had focused on finding people with dangerous criminal records, she said. But under Trump, workers without proper visas or work permits could be targeted.
“I urge the president to reconsider this wrong-headed policy and pursue comprehensive immigration reform rather than eroding the public’s trust and spreading fear and chaos in our communities,’’ Healey said.
For undocumented workers, the ramifications are sweeping. Some have grown wary of answering the door at home and are changing the way they commute. Others say their children fear coming home from school to discover their parents are gone.
Advocates for immigrants say that for now, Healey’s office may be the only place to turn to for help.
Lawyers and advocates interviewed by the Globe said the full impact of Trump’s immigrant policy is not yet known. One group said it would no longer refer wage and hour cases to the US Department of Labor, for fear records would be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another is warning undocumented workers who file taxes using a special form for people without Social Security numbers that they could no longer be certain the IRS would keep their forms confidential.
Julie Dahlstrom, director of Boston University School of Law’s Human Trafficking Clinic, said she’s concerned that people filing for visas because they have been the victims of human trafficking or violence could put themselves at risk by coming forward.
“There is a profound sense of fear and anxiety. I think that’s directly impacting people’s willingness to report to law enforcement,’’ Dahlstrom said. “There’s a fear of being swept off the street, which is incredibly frightening.”
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for the agency, said ICE is not planning to punish crime victims.
“If we walk into a labor trafficking situation, our goal is to put the criminals behind bars,’’ he said. “It’s not to put the victims behind bars.”
‘President Trump’s reckless mass deportation scheme will make our communities less safe and waste billions of taxpayer dollars.’
But within ICE itself, agency officials are still trying to digest the administration’s directives. In addition to speeding up deportations, ICE has been authorized to hire 10,000 officers, who can walk into restaurants or construction sites and arrest workers who lack papers showing that they are in the country legally.
Neudauer acknowledged that if agents went to a business looking for an alleged gang member or drug dealer, other workers there could be ensnared, even for lesser violations, such as working without a visa.
Diego Low, director of the nonprofit Metrowest Worker Center in Framingham, said he has heard recent reports of young workers being questioned by ICE in their homes, including several men targeted at a single apartment building. In this environment, he said, it’s going to be harder to persuade workers to bring cases to law enforcement officials.
“They’ve given bad actor-bad faith employers open season to further exploit, and, in fact, to swap out documented workers for undocumented,” Low said. “They’re going to make it so much more profitable to hire workers who are both cheap and docile.”Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.