The deal the worker struck was simple: $150 a day to tile a bathroom and stucco the walls of a home in Arcadia. The pay was to come at the end of each day but never did, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by the California labor commissioner.
After six days with no pay, the lawsuit alleges, the worker finally confronted his boss, who then snapped, called him a “wetback” and threatened to report him to immigration authorities.
“Let me share something with you, not only am I [an ex]-sheriff, my family are all in the police department,” the lawsuit says the boss wrote in a follow-up text message after refusing to pay the worker. “You want to come to my job & create a issue, I will handcuff you take you into custody & wait for I.C.E to come take you in for felony threats.”
The employer could not be reached for comment, but the claim is increasingly common. Complaints over immigration-related retaliation threats surged last year in California, according to the Labor Commissioner’s Office. Through Dec. 22, workers had filed 94 immigration-related retaliation claims with the office, up from 20 in all of 2016 and only seven a year earlier.
The cases include instances in which employers allegedly threatened to report workers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, after they raised issues over working conditions, including wage theft. Other allegations include employers demanding different documents than those required by federal immigration law or refusing to honor documents that appear genuine.
Such threats have long been a fact of life for California’s community of more than 2.3 million people who are in the country illegally, advocates say. One lawsuit filed by the commissioner alleges a boss threatened to report a worker to immigration authorities “several times each year.”
Laws that took effect in 2014 specifically barring the practice probably played a role in the increase of official complaints filed with the state agency, as workers become more familiar with their rights.
But Labor Commissioner Julie Su and immigrant advocates said the rise also could be attributed to employers feeling more empowered to wield ICE as a weapon given an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and stepped-up enforcement by ICE.
Employers have even told the commissioner’s staff that they would call ICE on their workers, Su said.
“That is the emboldening,” she said. “It is not just a coincidence and it’s not an accident there has been such a spike in threats to immigrant workers.”
At the same time, immigrant advocates said workers who are here illegally seem less likely to report workplace violations, given the political climate.
Su declined to single out a source of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. But President Trump has railed against illegal and legal immigration during the 2016 campaign and his presidency, often citing crime, including terrorism, as a reason for his stance, even though a number of studies show immigrants generally are less likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S..
Trump has even compared immigrants to snakes when he — to adoring crowds — read the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake” in which a “tender hearted woman” took in a sickly snake, only for her to be shocked when it bit her.
Such remarks make some employers “feel there is official support that these workers don’t deserve any protection and don’t deserve any rights,” said Sebastian Sanchez, an attorney with the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek, which provides legal services for low-income individuals. Sanchez helped the worker in the Arcadia case file claims with the labor commissioner, which eventually led to the commissioner’s lawsuit.
Mar Martinez, organizing coordinator for the Garment Worker Center in downtown Los Angeles, is also noticing more workers who say employers are holding the employees’ immigration status over their heads, even if some threats are less menacing than allegations in the Arcadia lawsuit.
In one case, a worker tried to take sick days after an injury, she said. “She was told, ‘Sick days are for people with papers. Undocumented people don’t get sick days,'” Martinez said.
Under federal and state law, workers are protected by minimum wage and other workplace laws regardless of immigration status.
Asked what steps ICE takes to ensure employers don’t use the agency as a retaliatory tool, a department spokeswoman pointed to a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Labor Department. It says ICE, except in certain circumstances, will refrain from conducting workplace enforcement at a business under investigation by the Labor Department.
The memorandum says ICE assesses whether tips and leads concerning workplace enforcement are “motivated by an improper desire to manipulate a pending labor dispute, retaliate against employees for exercising labor rights, or otherwise frustrate the enforcement of labor laws.”
A spokeswoman for Su said no similar agreement exists between the state agency and ICE, and that because the Labor Commissioner’s Office does not share information with immigration officials, workers should not be afraid to file complaints regardless of immigration status.
“In order for our democracy to function, the people, the residents of our state have to feel safe … to report a violation and seek the help of government,” Su said.
ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said her agency doesn’t have a policy to check every anonymous, non-workplace tip for potential manipulation, but if labor violations are later found they would be taken into account.
Whether an exploited undocumented worker can stay in the country depends on each individual’s case, she said, noting there are special visas for victims of human trafficking.
Bennett declined to comment on what advocates thought might be behind an increase in retaliation complaints. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
But worker advocates say ICE’s new marching orders are giving threats more teeth.
The Trump administration has proved more willing than the Obama administration to arrest people here illegally who are convicted of minor crimes or who have no criminal history. In the last fiscal year, the arrests of people in the U.S. illegally with no criminal convictions more than doubled, to over 37,000.
And last month, ICE acting Director Thomas Homan said he wants to increasingly target companies that hire undocumented workers and increase raids in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that restrict what police can and cannot do for ICE agents.
California took steps last year to protect people in the country illegally. A so-called sanctuary state bill dramatically reduces whom state and local law enforcement agencies can hold, question and transfer at the request of federal immigration authorities. And under another bill, employers also can’t let federal immigration agents onto private business property without a judicial warrant.
Su has also sued several companies in California Superior Court for nonpayment of penalties after her office ruled they engaged in immigration-related threats. Since she reported last summer that ICE agents had showed up at her agency’s offices looking for two workers, agents have not returned, Su said.
At the time, ICE said it could find no evidence of the visits. But Su said whether ICE is even called is beyond the point.