September 2017

How Trump has impacted immigrants, religious minorities in workplace

Since the 2016 election and more recently with the Trump administration policies targeting immigrant communities––including the travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries, the expansion of deportation efforts and the attacks on sanctuary cities––anti-immigrant harassment and bullying has been widely reported at schools, workplaces and places of business. 

At a program during the 2017 ABA Annual Meeting in New York, a panel of employment lawyers examined immigrants’ workplace rights, as well as problems that the administration’s policies may cause.

Panelists at the program: “Workplace Issues for Immigrants and Religious Minorities Under the Trump Administration,” sponsored by the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law, discussed measures and responses to protect and enforce the rights of immigrant and religious minority employees from anti-immigrant harassment and bullying.

“There is a real concern about folks not coming forward and asserting their rights,” said P. David Lopez, partner at Outten & Golden LLP in Washington, D.C., and former general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

According to Lopez, federal statutes protect immigrant workers against workplace discrimination and harassment, but President Trump’s anti-immigration policies have removed the safety net provided by these laws.

“Because of the anti-immigrant environment, folks are being pushed deeper into the shadows in such a way, almost paradoxically, that they are more susceptible to exploitation,” said Lopez.

He said that while immigrant workers feel discouraged about coming forward to raise allegations of discrimination and harassment, some employers exacerbate the challenges by preying on this vulnerable population.

“There are those who will calculate that they can get away with discrimination,” said Lopez. “Because the victims of discrimination will not complain because of fear, because of the lack of sophistication about legal rights or because of language barriers.”

According to Lopez, the most challenging legal concern is what happens and remains in the dark.

“Right now there is a concern that the underground workforce is being pushed deeper underground, leading to greater incidents of discrimination and labor law violations and other forms of violations,” he said.

Gurjot (Jo) Kaur, attorney for the Law Enforcement Bureau at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, discussed the impact of the Trump administration policies on immigrant communities, especially religious minorities, and protections in the workplace.

“There is no question that we are living through another surge of hate violence and discrimination against Muslims, those perceived to be Muslim––such as Sikhs, Hindus and south Asians––and immigrants,” said Kaur. “The hate violence and discrimination that we see on the streets often sweeps into the workplace.”

According to Kaur, the surge of workplace discrimination complaints seen since the 2016 elections in New York City are comparable to those after 9/11.

The workplace discrimination complaints, he said, “can take the place of a hostile work environment or harassment; employees being called terrorists or Bin-Laden; or it can be more insidious forms of discrimination such as neutral-look policies that are applied to keep out entire communities from the workplace.”   

According to Kaur, the role of local and state entities in protecting religious minorities is key.

He said that New York City is committed to protecting immigrant and religious minority communities through significant outreach that includes awareness campaigns to affirm the right to live, work and pray in New York City without discrimination; embracing a representative government of the communities it serves; and partnering with community-based organizations to document violence and discrimination and allocate resources to address the issues of those communities.

“We make every effort possible to protect the identity of workers that come to us. We do not ask about immigration status, we do what we can to protect this vulnerable population,” said Kaur.