Julie Su, the US Labor Department’s No. 2 in charge who was officially tapped as President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the agency Tuesday, has long drawn immigration advocacy groups’ support for the top spot.
Even if Su only heads the agency on an acting basis, organizations representing immigrant workers and legal nonprofits plan to press her on policies protecting workers involved in employment disputes or labor violations, and to beef up protections under temporary visa programs.
The National Immigration Law Center previously called on President Joe Biden to nominate Su to the position, while leaders of other immigration advocacy groups—like the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, One Fair Wage, and United We Dream—signed onto a letter endorsing Su for labor secretary.
“All workers—no matter where they were born—should be able to make a living wage and have safe working conditions. Julie Su’s track record shows her commitment to protecting everyone’s fundamental rights at work,” NILC tweeted Feb. 22.
The renewed calls for the Biden administration to bolster protections for immigrants coincides with the White House’s selection of Su as the top candidate to replace Labor Secretary Marty Walsh when he steps down in mid-March.
Immigration advocates view her past work as a lawyer for immigrant workers as a sign that she would be amenable to long-sought updates to work-based immigration policies.
The NILC also spearheaded a letter by several advocacy organizations backing Su for the labor secretary job after the 2020 election. At the time, the group hadn’t previously endorsed a candidate for the top DOL job.
“She’s really been a champion her entire career for all workers, regardless of immigration status, regardless of economic status,” Raha Wala, vice president of strategic partnerships and advocacy at NILC, told Bloomberg Law.
‘Whole of Government’
The Labor Department administers and enforces temporary foreign worker programs in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to certifying that there aren’t US workers available to fill job openings for which companies seek foreign labor, the DOL polices violations of immigrant worker rights and federal labor law.
NILC is pushing for the DOL to fully implement a policy recently rolled out by the Biden administration offering a pathway for immigrant workers involved in workplace disputes to seek protections from removal by DHS.
The administration also needs to issue new regulations to update the H-2B visa program for temporary and seasonal workers in non-farm jobs, Wala said.
Advocates haven’t yet seen the level of efficiency needed from federal agencies adjudicating claims of workplace abuse. If workers have to wait months or years for immigration relief, they won’t be confident coming forward to exercise their rights on the job, Wala said.
Improved efficiency will require better collaboration between federal agencies and with state governments, he added.
“What we’re really hoping for is a full, whole of government approach to protecting immigrant workers,” he said.
Past Points to Future?
Su, a daughter of immigrants, is known for her work in the 1990s at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles—formerly the Asian Pacific American Legal Center—a nonprofit legal aid organization for Asian Americans. The group secured more than $4 million in restitution and legal status for 72 Thai garment workers in California who were forced to work in sweatshop conditions for long hours.
Many credit the case with spurring the federal law passed in 2000 that created U and T visas, which provide immigration protections for victims of human trafficking and other crimes.
Su’s work gives her a window into the conditions faced every day by the workers represented by immigrant advocates, said Rachel Micah-Jones, founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc., which assists Mexico-based migrant workers in protecting their rights.
“Certainly we think she’s aligned on a number of issues we care deeply about and think will make a difference for workers,” Micah-Jones said.
The National Council of Agricultural Employers, which represents companies that hire temporary foreign workers, said the organization had a positive relationship with Walsh’s team that it hopes will continue under Su’s leadership.
“I would hope as acting secretary, or if she’s confirmed to the position or appointed to the position, that she would deal with agricultural employers with a fair hand,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the NCAE.
The group is suing the DOL to overturn new regulations governing the H-2A temporary agricultural guestworker visa program.
A district court judge recently denied an injunction the group sought against the broad ranging rule, which updates prevailing wage requirements and addresses housing, transportation, and worker recruitment.
Many components of the rule weren’t well thought out, Marsh said. But “it’s never a personal issue. We just need to get the rules correct,” he said. “We need to be able to sustain agricultural production here in the US.”
But worker advocates say federal rules can still do significantly more to protect workers.
The DOL is aiming for a summer release of new regulations addressing conditions for workers employed in temporary agricultural work.
An additional joint rule with the DHS to update the process for employers to hire H-2B temporary and seasonal employees in non-farm jobs also is in the works.
Revisiting those protections is overdue “considering the moves the (administration) has made to increase the size of the programs without improving them, and to incentivize their growth in regions where the rule of law is, questionable,” Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, said in an email.
“I hope the proposed rules include the right substantive changes and make it out of the gate” before the end of this administration, he said.
The visa programs tie a worker to a single employer in order to keep their visa, which can create a chilling effect for reporting abuse, said Andrew Walchuk, senior policy counsel and director of government relations at Farmworker Justice.
“Having someone like Deputy Secretary Su in leadership will be really important as the department is considering those changes to the H-2A rule,” he said.
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