Labor Secretary: U.S. to ‘protect’ illegal workers

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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At a Wednesday breakfast event, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis defended her agreements with Mexico and other countries to apply U.S. labor protections to illegal immigrants.

“I protect all workers here in this country,” she told The Daily Caller at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I have a vested interest in protecting all workers that work here in the U.S. Period.”

Critics of illegal immigration say Solis’ deals and statements show that she doesn’t value American workers more than foreign workers, and that she’s undercutting U.S. workers’ marketplace clout.

“These comments are extraordinarily irresponsible and historically unprecedented,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “This is a classic example of why this administration is so out of touch with Americans,” he said.

The U.S. should protect all workers in the United States from unscrupulous employees, said Mark Kirkorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. But Solis should ensure that foreign workers’ compensation is delivered in their home countries, he said. “I’m all for [enforcement], because it makes it more expensive to hire them. I just want them to get the check back in Mexico,” he said.

The nation’s unemployment rate is at least 9.1 percent, at least 14 million Americans are unemployed, and the percentage of working Americans has fallen to 64 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Labor chief decries conservative proposal to cripple NLRB)

Between 11 million and 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security. That total includes roughly seven million working-age migrants.

On Monday, Solis signed agreements with the governments of the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and El Salvador “to protect the labor rights of migrant workers from those countries who are employed in the United States,” according to a Labor Department statement. The department has already signed similar deals with Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

According to the agency’s description of the deals, the department’s “Wage and Hour Division will protect the rights of migrant workers in low-wage industries such as hospitality and agriculture, while OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] will continue efforts to improve workplace safety and health conditions as well as provide outreach and assistance to Spanish-speaking workers and employers.”

Asked about those deals, Solis — who is the daughter of two immigrants from Central America — said “government is quite clear in terms of protecting all workers here in the U.S., regardless of origins. Under Republican and Democratic administrations, that’s the law.”

“I protect all workers here in this country, so if we find there is wage theft [by employers] that’s going on in the restaurant industry, or garment industry or in agribusiness, I am responsible to go after and investigate those reports, regardless of who it is,” she said. “I have an obligation.”

In a statement to TheDC, the agency wrote that “the statutes we enforce create broad obligations for employers and make no distinction between documented and undocumented workers.” The Occupational Safety and Health Act, for example, requires the agency “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions [and] … the Fair Labor Standards Act [says] an employee is “any individual employed by an employer,” read the statement. “Courts have held that the rights set forth in these statutes and others apply to both documented and undocumented workers … [and the] Department’s enforcement of these laws is consistent with that of the previous administration.”

Labor law covers all workers in the country, but it operates alongside immigration law that restricts work by foreign workers, said Stein. Solis, he said, “does not see immigration law enforcement as relevant at all in her job … [and she acts as if] the threat of immigration law enforcement is an anti-labor move.”

In part, Solis is trying to boost Hispanics’ support for President Barack Obama, said Stein, who pointed to an August 21 Washington Post article which described a meeting Solis held with Hispanic political activists. “I understand the pain that our community is going through … [but] I think it’s amazing how little people know of the good things that this administration has done” for Hispanics, Solis told the activists, according to the Post article.

“She’s pandering to a political ethnic bloc, and when she uses the term ‘our community,’ she’s using a term of exclusion that is extremely divisive,” said Stein.

Solis and other administration officials are treating illegal workers as if they are U.S. workers “because they’re ambivalent about American sovereignty … [and] distinguishing between Americans and foreigners,” said Krikorian. Their pursuit of Hispanic voters is a “practical manifestation of this broader ambivalence,” he said.

U.S. government officials, he said, “have a greater obligation to Americans than to foreigners … [but] I’m not sure these guys believe that.”

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