Redefining the Legality of Undocumented Work
33 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2017 Last revised: 9 Oct 2017
Date Written: September 21, 2017
Undocumented workers face a new harsh reality under the Trump administration. Federal law’s prohibition of undocumented work has facilitated exploitation because workers fear being brought to the attention of immigration authorities. The current administration’s aggressive stance towards worksite enforcement will only exacerbate abuses against undocumented workers, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions, or human trafficking.
Given the current climate, this article explores how states and localities can resist the federal prohibition by legalizing undocumented work. We live in times of resistance, with “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Seizing on this moment, state and local resistance can offer more immediate accountability for addressing the plight of undocumented workers while disrupting the ways in which the federal immigration framework defines the illegality of undocumented work. To start, this article reviews how the incongruence between the lived experiences of undocumented workers and the federal immigration framework creates an underclass of workers. Next, it develops a typology of state and local resistance measures that recognize, protect, or promote undocumented work and considers whether these measures can succeed given concerns about federalism and governmental retaliation.
This article concludes by discussing why state and local resistance is worthwhile. Beyond the palpable benefits of addressing exploitation, state and local resistance can help undocumented workers overcome exclusion by increasing their sense of belonging. Community members too benefit from the strengthening of workers’ rights and the contributions to the local economy. At the same time, such resistance changes social norms and provides a powerful critique of the federal prohibition on undocumented work. Ultimately, this article is the first to examine how state and local resistance focused on undocumented work can lend itself to building social movements that promote immigrant inclusion by redefining the legality of undocumented work.
Keywords: Immigration, Immigrant workers, Undocumented workers, State and local resistance, Sanctuary city
JEL Classification: K31, K39, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation