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State House passes protections for immigrant whistleblowers

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

Delaware House lawmakers voted on Thursday to expand workplace whistleblower protection by prohibiting employers from threatening to report workers’ immigration statuses to law enforcement.

State Rep. Eric Morrison (D-Bear) says his bill simply expands current protections to anyone whose real or perceived immigration status – or that of their family members – is used against them by an employer. The state’s Whistleblower Act is enforceable by filing a civil complaint in Superior Court; violations don’t carry a criminal penalty.

But ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Mike Brickner says many immigrant workers – undocumented or not – may still be reluctant to turn to the courts to address workplace abuse or unsafe working conditions.

"Many of them are trying to work to support their family," he said. "They may be sending money back to their original country to family members there, so they’re very dependent on those employers."

Brickner says the ACLU has received numerous allegations of worker mistreatment and threats of retaliations – particularly in Delaware’s poultry industry.

He says that enables some employers to underpay workers because they rarely come forward for fear of deportation or loss of a vital income stream.

“Oftentimes those employers can flourish because they know they have this very vulnerable community where they know it’s hard to speak out," he said.

The bill passed the House unanimously with Republican state Rep. Mike Ramone (R-Pike Creek Valley) – who owns a New Castle County landscaping business - saying he’s become aware of similar abuses in his industry.

“People in my industry would love a bill like this," he said, "because it gets the bad guys in a position where they can be better-monitored.”

The bill passed without opposition in the House. It now heads to the Senate.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.