Legal strategies differ when labor rights and immigration policy conflict

New book explores how differences in San Jose and Houston affect advocates' approach

Shannon Gleeson
Shannon Gleeson, associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies
Cover: Conflicting Commitments

In a new book, UC Santa Cruz professor Shannon Gleeson examines the paradox of federal labor rights enforcement and immigration policy and how the conflicts are dealt with in San Jose and Houston, two American cities with large immigrant populations.

"Two arms of the federal government are sending two very different messages," says Gleeson, an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies. In her book, Conflicting Commitments: The Politics of Enforcing Immigrant Worker Rights in San Jose and Houston (Cornell University Press, 2012), Gleeson examines the conflicts between U.S. labor laws that cover all workers, including undocumented immigrants, and stated federal immigration policy.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act forbidding businesses from hiring undocumented workers. Since then, the undocumented population in the U.S. has more than doubled to an estimated 11.5 million. Of those, approximately eight million are workers, mostly concentrated in low-wage and dangerous jobs.

The workers' immigration status makes them vulnerable to various abuses, but as soon as they are on the job, even if not authorized to work, they are protected by the same federal labor laws that protect all employees.

They are covered in matters of wages and hours and under provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the question is how to protect labor rights in the face of an immigration policy that aims to remove unauthorized workers.  Fearing deportation and job loss, undocumented workers are particularly reluctant to complain.

Gleeson's research revealed the starkly different ways immigrant advocates in San Jose and Houston enforce immigrant worker rights.

Anti-immigrant forces are powerful and unions are weak in Houston, but a coalition including federal government agencies, the Mexican consulate, and other civil society groups collaborate to enforce immigrant workers' rights. Conversely, advocates in San Jose rely on strong labor union power and a well-developed legal advocacy network that collaborates primarily with state agencies to advance enforcement of immigrant worker rights.

Gleeson’s account reveals how local political contests shape advocacy strategies, and the strategic alliances that emerge. "To protect the rights of one worker is to protect the rights of all workers," Gleeson said.

Facing an era of continued anti-immigrant sentiment and deportation drives, she said she hopes that the lessons learned from San Jose and Houston can further the national conversation about the need to protect labor and human rights for all workers.