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NLRB Breaks New Ground In Issuing Four U Visas to Exploited, Undocumented Workers in NJ


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A harrowing story from Salon“Tearing out asbestos with bare hands: meet the boss from hell” — gives a glimpse of the dangers faced by undocumented workers in the U.S.  When a group of laborers employed by New Jersey apartment company Benjamin H. Realty attempted to organize with LiUNA!, their employer used immigration status as a retaliatory weapon, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions and placing them in harm’s way.  The workers, who had been forced to remove asbestos with their bare hands and work without scaffolding from four stories, were eventually fired before a union election took place.  

In response, the NLRB has issued the workers U visas, an unprecedented ruling in labor.

At a recent press conference, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez stood with the four workers and used their story as an example of why the issue of immigration reform can no longer be placed on the backburner.  

“Clearly, what happens is: When someone is undocumented they can be exploited – and they frequently are,” Menendez said following a Friday press event with the workers. “And once they try to organize in order to get better wages, working conditions, they immediately are fired. And sometimes, even worse, they are told they are being reported to immigration as a way to keep them subjected to the discrimination and exploitation.” He added that such retaliation “hurts all workers” and “presses down wages for all in that universe.”

The official reason given for the firings was improper documentation to work in the United States.  Of course, their employer already knew this was the case and likely hired them because of his ability to exploit them as a result.  But two weeks before the union organizing drive their status conveniently became an issue.  The workers had lived in employer-owned housing and were evicted after being terminated.  According to one of the workers, Isaac Hernandez, “when they found out that there was going to be an election and there was an election date, that’s when it all went down.”

The NLRB decision to grant U visas lays interesting new ground for undocumented worker disputes.  These visas are typically issued to immigrants who have experienced serious crimes, allowing them to stay in the United States to mend.  This group of four workers became the first to receive these visas by order of the NLRB.  Sen. Menendez would like to see these visas issued more often to protect immigrants.  

Expanding the use of U visas to protect immigrants who are punished for organizing is one of the reforms in Senator Menendez’s POWER Act, a version of which appears in the immigration bill passed by the Senate in July. Menendez told Salon the Benjamin H. Realty workers’ allegations offered “a perfect example of the type of reason why my legislation is so critically important.” Menendez argued the bill “would go an enormous way to being able to ensure that discrimination and exploitation couldn’t take place in the country without a remedy.” He called protections for immigrant workers “enormously important” in improving labor rights for workers more broadly in the US, a goal he argued had also been advanced by the Senate finally confirming a general counsel and a full complement of members to the National Labor Relations Board.

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