Deportation Fears Keep Undocumented Workers From Reporting Hazards

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By Stephen Lee

Ricardo is a 50-year-old construction worker who has installed floors and walls in Austin, Texas, for more than 20 years.

But he’s also an undocumented immigrant. And since the Trump administration began ramping up deportation efforts of people like him, Ricardo says he’s much less willing to report dangerous conditions on worksites to his supervisor or the government.

“I have less trust,” Ricardo told Bloomberg BNA through an interpreter. “If a crime or violence is going on in my community, I can’t report it. There’s a fear that they’ll ask about your immigration status. The fear has been constant since [Donald] Trump became president.”

Worker: ‘We’re Afraid’

The increasing silence is creating steadily more dangerous conditions at worksites, according to Ricardo.

“Many times workers are not receiving safety equipment and are not reporting unsafe working conditions,” he said. “Safety equipment is not being given out, and many times workers are afraid to ask or demand it—their safety gloves, glasses, hard hats, a harness when working on heights.”

Claudia, a 45-year old electrician from El Salvador who works in Dallas, tells a similar story.

“There’s always been a fear because deportations have always been happening,” Claudia told Bloomberg BNA, also through an interpreter. “But now with Trump, there’s added fear, because he’s not a man of his word. We’re afraid that anything we say can be used against us.”

Both Ricardo and Claudia asked that their last names not be used by Bloomberg BNA for fear of deportation.

Spillover Effects

Still worse, the dangerous conditions that go unreported on these worksites also endanger other workers and the general public, said Celeste Monforton, a former policy analyst with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Rather than alerting the authorities, Claudia said she has begun fixing dangerous conditions herself, even if it’s not her responsibility to do so, because “I want to protect myself and my coworkers, and it’s something that will keep the site safer.”

The fear of deportation is also creating dangerous distractions, Ricardo says.

“Workers are thinking about what could happen if they caught by immigration, and then they don’t work or drive well with that fear,” he said. “You can’t concentrate on the job or other activities. Before, you could do your work well. Now, it’s more difficult.”

Trust Under Obama Being Eroded?

Since taking office, Trump has followed through on his campaign promises by aggressively increasing deportation efforts.

On Jan. 25, he signed an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to take a more active role in deporting undocumented immigrants. Trump has said the deportations are focused only on convicted criminals and those who pose a risk to public safety.

Under former President Barack Obama’s regime, OSHA didn’t ask workers about their citizenship status, said David Michaels, the agency’s former chief. The Occupational Safety and Health Act stipulates that employers must provide all workers with safe workplaces, regardless of their status, Michaels told Bloomberg BNA.

During the Obama years, OSHA gradually established trust with undocumented workers, who came to see the agency as an ally, Monforton said, now a lecturer at George Washington University. But that trust is rapidly being eroded under Trump, she said.

Rift With Latino Communities

“There was a slow opening up, over the previous eight years, in recognizing that we have undocumented workers in the country who are doing some of the most dangerous jobs,” Monforton said. “And more workers said, ‘Wow, they really do listen; they’re going to go in and confirm whether these hazards and violations exist.’ More trust was built up. And pretty much overnight, that has changed.”

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, confirmed that Trump’s administration has created a rift between itself and Latinos working in the U.S.

“The actions that this administration has taken absolutely have done lasting damage within the Latino community,” Garza told Bloomberg BNA. “Trust has been broken. It’s going to be very hard for this administration to earn that trust back.”

Fears Not Unfounded

Monforton said undocumented workers have solid grounds for fearing that OSHA is notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the undocumented workers its agents find when they visit workplaces.

“That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Monforton said. “The president’s rhetoric on this has been so strong, and we’ve seen people swept up in raids. It’s playing out already.”

There are few numbers cataloging the undocumented immigrants who have been affected by Trump’s order. ICE didn’t respond to emails from Bloomberg BNA or calls for comment.

Michaels said all workers must be protected because otherwise employers will use undocumented immigrants as stand-ins for their most dangerous jobs.

“Why should employers hire documented workers if protecting them requires an investment in safety, when they can hire undocumented workers?” Michaels said.

Pro-Deportation Forces Speak Out

Immigration reformers, however, argue that it’s precisely because undocumented workers won’t speak up that they should be deported.

The safety problems raised by their unwillingness to flag hazards are themselves an argument in favor of removing them, said David Ray, a spokesman at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“If we stop illegal immigration, then no one will ever be looking over their shoulders, wondering if they’re going to be deported,” Ray told Bloomberg BNA. “Everyone will know they’re protected from exploitation. If they wish to come here, they should do so through the legal immigration process. Then they would enjoy the full protection of America’s labor laws and not be living in the dark.”

Collateral Damage

David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, broadly agrees, saying “there’s always a little bit of collateral damage” that accompanies any form of law enforcement.

“If daddy robs a bank and the cops pick him up and send him to jail, that’s hard on the kids,” North told Bloomberg BNA. “It doesn’t mean we should allow people to get away with robbing banks.”

North also questioned how severe the chill has been on undocumented workers reporting unsafe conditions.

“I think we all should go about our business of either preventing accidents or deporting people who are deportable,” North said. “This is a deliberate effort to fog the issue [of deportation] by bringing in safety. There’s a certain year-round reluctance of workers to report unsafe things anyway, because you fear the bosses. That’s going to continue to be a problem whether someone’s being deported or not.”

Agencies like OSHA, North said, are no more interested in workers’ immigration status under Trump than they were under Obama.

“The construction safety regulators are interested quite narrowly in construction safety,” North said. “They’re not worried about whether people pay taxes or not, or are here illegally or not.”

‘Insulting, Disgusting’ Arguments

Garza called those arguments “insulting.” In his view, defenders of Trump’s deportations are positing a false choice between either safe workplaces without undocumented workers or dangerous places with them.

“It’s absolutely possible to create an environment where immigrant men and women can feel safe coming forward and reporting violations,” Garza told Bloomberg BNA. “To give cover to some sector of the industry that exploits undocumented workers, and to blame the victims, is really disgusting.”

Further, Michaels said, the reality is that undocumented workers are here to stay, so some effort should be made to protect them at work, if only on humanitarian grounds.

“There are many millions of undocumented workers in the U.S.,” Michaels said. “They would not all be deported. It is impossible.”

No Hard Data

Even the crudest data on how many deportations have taken place under Trump isn’t available, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which closely monitors the issue.

“There has been a real tightening of access” under Trump, Sue Long, the program’s director, told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s not providing data anymore.”

In the meantime, Ricardo and Claudia say they have no choice but to keep working, crackdown or no crackdown.

“We need to pay the bills,” Claudia said. “We need to feed our children. Are you going to report something that’s not safe on the job, when you really need the job to pay your bills?”

“It is very, very difficult and traumatic, especially if you are just getting here,” Ricardo said. “There’s more discrimination now. They look at us like they don’t need us. But we will always be needed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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