Oped: Immigrant workers deserve dignity, respect

Paco Fabián
Tribune News Service

While I grew up in Mexico, I've spent the majority of my life here in the United States. This is my home.

Mine is a familiar story. Many of us are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Our families were willing to risk it all to start a new life in a new country.

Except for those who were here before us or those who were brought here against their will, we are a nation of immigrants. Our stories are woven into the very fabric of this country. Saint Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year are celebrated by millions of Americans, whether or not it's their direct heritage.

The policies of our current president seem intent on destroying that part of us. Since President Donald Trump took office, he has made it his mission to remove those who don't fit his ill-informed definition of what it is to be an American. In addition, his proposals to cut legal immigration rates could keep more than 20 million legal immigrants from coming into this country over the next four decades, most of them from Latin America or Africa, according to the Washington Post.

What Trump doesn't seem to understand is that the immigrants are one of our nation's greatest economic engines. They contribute to every sector of our economy.

Immigrants are more than twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born citizens. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, pay billions in taxes each year. And research shows that, contrary to assumptions that immigrant workers take away opportunities from native-born workers, they actually enhance opportunities for all workers in this country.

The problem isn't how much immigrant workers contribute to our economy. It's how these workers are treated once they're here.

Many immigrant workers, particularly undocumented workers, find themselves relegated to the shadows. Through my work with Good Jobs Nation, I've talked to workers like Ana Gomez, who came to this country to escape brutal violence in El Salvador when she was 14. She spent several years working at fast food restaurants and car washes where she was forced to work long hours without pay. She never spoke up or asked for help because she didn't have a choice. If she spoke up, she would be deported.

When President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, she was able to complete her GED and get a job working at the United States Senate cafeteria. With our help, she also was finally able to speak out about mistreatment because her rights were protected by the law.

Together with fellow workers, Ana went on strike and filed a wage theft complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor to fight injustice on the job that eventually led to the recovery of more than $1 million in stolen wages and damages.

There are millions of workers like Ana across America who will be forced back into the shadows if Congress doesn't act now to stop Trump's disastrous policies.

Wage theft is just the beginning. Many of the workers I've spoken with tell stories about rampant abuse. This will only get worse if immigrant workers are afraid to speak up for fear of deportation or if they are denied the protection that the law affords them.

Businesses will be forced to compete with unscrupulous employers, and the downward pressure on wages will increase.

As a nation of immigrants, we must stand up and demand that the workers that contribute so much to our nation's economy are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

— Paco Fabian is the communications director for Good Jobs Nation.