As the country grapples with the hard-line Trump administration immigration policy that has separated families and rounded up droves of immigrants in recent months, District lawmakers want to broaden the city’s extortion law to protect immigrants from those who seek to use their immigration status as leverage.
The proposed amendment to the District’s existing extortion statute would make it a crime for landlords and employers to wield a person’s undocumented status to get someone to work extra hours or pay more in rent, among other things.
Threatening to report someone for being in the United States illegally — or actually doing so — would be punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and as many as 10 years in prison.
“Looking at the news every day and seeing how the immigrant community is under attack really makes me think about how we can double down on our sanctuary-city status,” said Councilman Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), who proposed the legislation. “We’re really lucky in the District to have a really vibrant immigrant community, and I want to make sure I’m sending the message to my residents that we’re going to stand by you.”
Washington is among a number of “sanctuary” cities that welcome immigrants regardless of legal status and generally discourage local police from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
Todd said he hoped the law would serve as a deterrent to landlords and employers who might be emboldened by the federal government’s immigration crackdown.
Immigrant rights advocates said the District bill would be a step toward protecting vulnerable populations but might not go far enough. Rob Wohl, a tenant organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center, said slumlords who chronically flout city codes and housing regulations are unlikely to be intimidated by another law on the books.
“It’s good to offer people protection. I think that’s a good thing,” Wohl said. “But I’m concerned that D.C. keeps putting these statutory protections on the books without doing anything to improve the mechanisms that are meant to actually enforce these laws.”
He said he had not heard of cases in the District in which landlords explicitly threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on immigrant tenants.
Todd said that should the bill pass, D.C. agencies would begin the process of educating landlords and employers about the new law while also “doubling down on enforcement.”
“It would help [landlords and employers] know that we’re going to start paying attention to this specifically, so they should be aware,” he said. “It serves two purposes. We want to deter this kind of behavior, but we also want to send a clear message that if you don’t follow our laws, we’re going to hold you accountable.”
For laws to be enforced, immigration advocates said, immigrants would need to alert authorities — something they might be less willing to do if they are worried about being targeted themselves. Police agencies across the country have noted a decline in crime reporting in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, a trend some law enforcement officials have attributed to fear over Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Federal agents made as many as a dozen arrests in the heart of the District’s largest Central American community over the weekend, sparking protests in Columbia Heights and a spike in anxiety among immigrant families who, in some cases, had regularly checked in with immigration officials and trusted local police.
“We can’t control what the federal government does,” Todd said. “But we can send a message and put resources behind protection in the immigrant community.”
The bill, which was introduced June 26, is unlikely to be discussed in a public hearing until the D.C. Council reconvenes after its summer recess. It has been co-sponsored by at-large council members Anita Bonds (D), Elissa Silverman (I) and Robert C. White Jr. (D) and Ward 3 council member Mary M. Cheh (D).
Until the council reconvenes, the bill will sit with the city’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which will determine whether or when the bill proceeds.
A handful of states — California, Colorado, Maryland and Virginia — have enacted similar laws.
Heidi Shierholz, chief economist at the Labor Department during the Obama administration, said that typically, in an open marketplace, workers have several points of leverage, including the ability to unionize and regulated labor standards, such as a minimum wage. But for immigrants in the country illegally and fearful that an employer could report them or their family if they push back against demands, “that bargaining power goes out the window,” Shierholz said.
That, she added, hurts citizens and immigrants who came to the United States legally as much as it hurts workers here illegally, because it “degrades the standards of that workplace.”
“Say I’m an authorized immigrant working alongside unauthorized immigrants,” said Shierholz, now the director of policy with the Economic Policy Institute think tank. “Without some kind of guarantee that those workers are protected, I won’t be able to have that worker join me in bringing a claim against an employer who’s stealing our wages or not providing overtime or not giving us a safe place to work.”
The bill, she said, would probably help workers feel more confident in airing grievances or pushing back against employers, knowing immigration status could not be used in retaliation.
“But there is only one thing that will truly solve this problem,” she said. “And that is bringing [undocumented immigrants] out of the shadows entirely.”