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The Biden administration announced the DHS will halt workplace raids

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

During Donald Trump's presidency, immigration agents arrested thousands of individuals allegedly living in the country illegally through a series of high-profile raids on workplaces. Officials said these raids were intended to send a message to people skirting federal labor laws. But some criticized the raids for disrupting the lives of hardworking immigrants. On Tuesday, the Biden administration signaled it would now end the practice. Here to discuss the significance of the move and what comes next is Marielena Hincapie. She is executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARIELENA HINCAPIE: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marielena, until now, immigration advocates have criticized President Biden for failing to change U.S. immigration policy significantly from the Trump years. So do you think this is significant?

HINCAPIE: Absolutely. This recent guidance on worksite enforcement is really transformative, and I think it's much more in line with what voters elected President Biden for, which was his vision of a 21st century immigration system that understands and recognizes that immigrants are essential to who we are as a nation and also an immigration system that really centers the humanity and dignity of individuals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your organization is representing workers who were arrested in raids during the Trump years, specifically one at a meat processing plant in Tennessee about 3 1/2 years ago. Can you describe what happened there?

HINCAPIE: Yes. As you mentioned, we at the National Immigration Law Center represent workers in the Zelaya v. Hammer case, which was a case arising out of a really violent immigration raid that took place in April of 2018. They had plainclothes agents who were pointing guns at the workers, and officers ended up arresting about a hundred workers - only Latinos, including even a U.S. citizen. The word that Immigration was in town spread through the community. Many people didn't even want to leave their homes. And nearly 600 children missed school the next day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Homeland Services Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a memorandum that work-site raids are a way for employers to retaliate against workers who speak up about unfair and unsafe labor conditions. He also said that workplace raids don't really punish employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Your view on that viewpoint?

HINCAPIE: The thing is that for the last 35 years in this country, we have had what is called employer sanctions, where supposedly, under our immigration laws, employers would be held accountable for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, and instead, it's the workers who have been targeted by the federal government, and this guidance basically shifts that and says, no, we need to go after the employers that are knowingly hiring workers, recruiting them knowing that they're undocumented and exploiting them because they're the ones who are actually responsible for depressing working conditions. And that affects all workers in the country, not just undocumented workers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: During the Trump years, what actually was understood is that these high-profile raids - they were really there just to send a message. And Republicans and hard-liners say that that message was important because it actually sent a signal that really stopped illegal immigration across the border. How do you secure the country's borders if you don't send a message that someone will be held accountable if you employ people who are not authorized to work in this country?

HINCAPIE: You know, the thing is that the place to address the job magnet is actually by holding the people who have power, which is the employers, right? Employers for far too long have gotten away with knowingly recruiting, hiring and then exploiting workers. And this actually has an impact on U.S.-born workers, as well, because when an undocumented worker, who is getting paid less than minimum wage, doesn't feel safe enough to come forward because that employer is threatening with calling immigration agents against them - that depresses the working conditions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I think what you would hear someone on the right say is that we are seeing unprecedented surges of illegal immigration at the southern border. How do you then address that? Because there is, of course, a push and a pull factor, and some people would say that the pull factor is that there are jobs in this country, and there are people willing to employ people who are not authorized here.

HINCAPIE: That is actually separate from what's happening within our country, which is - we have almost 8 million undocumented workers. We can't allow, on the one hand, say, you should not be in this country, but we're going to look the other way and allow the employers to exploit you. This is why this guidance from the Department of Homeland Security is so critical because it's finally saying, we are going to target the people who are responsible for both hiring undocumented workers and exploiting them. And this actually, over time, will actually take away that job magnet because employers won't be able to exploit those workers and get away with that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marielena Hincapie is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Thank you very much.

HINCAPIE: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.