ACLU/SC client Osfel Andrade wasn’t looking for attention when he blew the whistle on years of exploitation and discrimination of largely immigrant workers by his employer. In fact, attention is something Andrade was hoping to avoid. But this Saturday, June 18, Public Interest Projects will honor his bravery by awarding him its Freedom from Fear Award, given to 15 individuals nationwide who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants at great personal risk.

Following an immigration raid on his workplace in June 2010 in which 43 workers were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, Osfel took the brave step of filing a class-action lawsuit against his employer, Terra Universal, Inc., in Fullerton, California for years of wages owed to him and approximately 500 other factory workers. He did it knowing that if he filed suit, he could attract the notice of immigration authorities and face deportation proceedings.

But Osfel was determined that his employer pay for the years of exploitation and discrimination he and his colleagues faced because they were immigrants. The company required employees to work as many as 14 hours a day without overtime pay and placed a red sticker on the personnel files of all undocumented employees to single them out for half the salaries of documented or citizen employees. Osfel believed that it was his obligation to take a stand on behalf of his colleagues who were now facing deportation and separation from their families.

One morning in November 2010, two months after Osfel filed suit, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents did indeed show up at Osfel’s apartment, arrested him and placed him in deportation proceedings. He spent two weeks in detention before he was released on bond.  The ICE agents told Osfel that they learned he had not been arrested during the immigration raid from a Terra Universal manager.

Although employment and labor law protects all workers, regardless of immigration status, unscrupulous employers often use the threat of immigration enforcement to quell worker demands. And they commonly refer their workers to immigration authorities after they exercise their labor rights. In Osfel’s case, Terra Universal management referred him to ICE in retaliation for his filing a lawsuit against them.

Under its own rules, ICE isn’t even allowed to act on tips from employers who are in the midst a labor dispute. That helps ensure that immigration enforcement is not used to stifle workers’ rights in the workplace, such as collective bargaining efforts or the ability of workers to complain about hazardous conditions or to demand wages. When undocumented workers can’t demand their rights in the workplace because of fear of immigration retaliation, they can’t ensure basic employer compliance with wage and hour laws.  Such rampant substandard conditions affect all workers by driving down working conditions across industries and sectors.

Osfel Andrade is the type of individual that our country should honor and value, not deport. He embodies Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, proclaiming that each of us has the right to freedom from fear. ICE should immediately terminate deportation proceedings against him, and send a message to workers like Osfel that they need not fear deportation for exercising their rights on the job.

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