Immigration enforcement is funded at a much higher rate than labor standards enforcement—and the gap is widening

Daniel Costa

Daniel Costa Director of Immigration Law and Policy, EPI

One clear way to understand the priorities of a government is to look at how it spends money. If it’s true as they say that “budgets are moral documents,” then this Congress and administration do not place much value on worker rights or working conditions. A comparative analysis of 2018 federal budget data reveals that detaining, deporting, and prosecuting migrants, and keeping them from entering the country, is the top law enforcement priority of the United States—but protecting workers in the U.S. labor market and ensuring that their workplaces are safe and that they get paid for every cent their earn is barely an afterthought.

In 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) made headlines with a report that highlighted the fact that appropriations for immigration enforcement agencies exceeded funding for the five main U.S. law enforcement agencies combined by 24 percent. A recent report from MPI updated the numbers, showing that after six years of skyrocketing spending, immigration enforcement agencies received $24 billion in 2018, or $4.4 billion more than they did in 2012 (in constant 2018 dollars). This amounts to “34 percent more than the $17.9 billion allocated for all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined,” which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

With $24 billion in federal spending and climbing, immigration enforcement has undoubtedly become the top law enforcement priority of the U.S. government and the Trump administration. Where do labor standards and worker rights fit in?

My analysis of federal budget data reveals that spending on immigration enforcement in 2018 was an astonishing 11 times greater than spending to enforce labor standards—despite the mandate labor agencies have to protect 146 million workers employed at 10 million workplaces. Labor standards enforcement across the federal government received $2.2 billion in 2012, and that amount has decreased since then. In 2018, the budget for labor standards enforcement was only $2.0 billion, a $200 million decrease in real terms. (See Figure A.)

Congress is currently working on legislation to spend billions more on emergency appropriations for immigration enforcement while the Trump administration is proposing deep cuts to funding for labor agencies. As both of these line items continue to move in the wrong direction, we see an increasingly disparate investment pattern with serious consequences for all working people across the country.

This estimate for labor standards enforcement appropriations uses an expansive definition that includes 2012 and 2018 funds for eight subagencies, administrations, and offices that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) considers for “Worker Protection” in budget documents, as well as appropriations for two non-DOL agencies, the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board.

In terms of staffing, federal budget data also show that labor enforcement agencies are staffed at only a fraction of the levels required to adequately fulfill their missions. In 2018, Congress gave the immigration enforcement agencies—U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM)—funds to employ 78,800 total personnel, while the 10 labor standards enforcement agencies combined only received enough to employ 10,400.

Furthermore, the agents and investigators at labor agencies who actually police the labor market, who are a subset of the total personnel employed, have seen their workloads reach unrealistic levels because hiring has failed to keep up. As a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy and EPI highlights, the number of workers that each Wage and Hour Division investigator at DOL was responsible for in 1978 was just over 69,000. By 2018, that had more than doubled, to 175,000 workers per investigator on average. It’s a similar story at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): there were just over 60,000 workers for every OSHA compliance officer in 1978; the number in 2018 had roughly tripled to nearly 180,000.

So why does all this matter? It is getting harder than ever to ensure that workers get a fair shake in the workplace. Budgets for labor standards enforcement agencies are shrinking. Employer tactics like forced arbitrationprevent workers from suing in court when their bosses rob them. And the executive branch can also severely limit the work labor agencies can do on behalf of workers through executive actions, regulatory policy, and political appointees—something the Trump administration has specialized in. In the context of vastly underfunded labor agencies, enforcement-only immigration policies with runaway budgets risk enabling retaliation against immigrant workers who stand up for their rights on the job.

All workers face too many risks when they take action to make workplaces safer and fairer. But for 8 million workers—or about 5 percent of the U.S. labor force—those risks include deportation and separation from their families. Another 1 percent of the workforce risks losing a temporary visa status that their employer controls if they speak out. No worker should ever have to make a choice between safety and getting paid or possible deportation when deciding whether to file a claim with a labor agency, but that’s the reality for 6 percent of workers in this grossly imbalanced enforcement context.

ICE and CBP have virtually unlimited funds and an ever-expanding mandate and discretion to arrest, detain, and deport migrants—many of whom are long-term members of our workforce—while labor agencies are perennially underfunded. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the amount of wages stolen every year by employers is estimated to be $50 billion, or that there were more than 10,000 fatal work injuries and 5.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses in 2016 and 2017 combined.

With so little financial backing for federal labor standards enforcement and so few staffers policing the labor market, how can our government ensure that workers are safe and protected, and that employers are held accountable for discrimination, dangerous conditions, or stolen wages? The short answer is, it can’t.


Reposted from EPI

Posted In: Allied Approaches, Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work