Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
“The fear is historic in this region and the policies of hate in this administration have reached new levels,” says a community organizer in Alamo, Texas.
The land straddling Texas and Mexico makes up almost two-thirds of the 1,933 mile U.S.-Mexico border. On one end lies El Paso and the Rio Grande River; on the other is the Gulf of Mexico and border towns like Brownsville, the site of the former Walmart where nearly 1,500 migrant children are being detained, far from their parents. But behind closed doors in thousands of homes peppering those miles, are domestic workers doing the invisible labor of the region—most of them immigrant women.
A new report based on interviews with 516 housecleaners, nannies, and care workers on the border, reveals high incidences of wage theft, abuse, and exploitation among these already vulnerable laborers. Their stories were collected in 2016 by volunteers from three community-based organizations—Adult and Youth United Development Association Inc (AYUDA) in San Elizario; Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center in Alamo; and Comité de Justicia Laboral in El Paso—many of whom are former or current domestic workers themselves.
Over a third of domestic workers reported going hungry at least once that year, and more than half couldn’t pay for medical care when someone in their family needed it, they found. Live-in workers were exposed to some of the worst conditions: Almost a third had been pushed or physically hurt by an employer, and 45 percent had been injured on the job.
These workplace nightmares also come with a lack of legal protection—67 percent of those surveyed worked without contracts, and benefits like overtime pay, paid sick leave, and paid vacation days were almost non-existent (2-3 percent). Sixty percent of live-in workers were pressured to work longer than initially scheduled; most worked six or seven days a week. And a quarter of all domestic workers were paid less than agreed upon, or not at all.
It’s harder to protect workers from exploitative conditions in private homes, even if they don’t live there full-time, because regulations are lax and rarely enforced. “There is no human resources department to complain to, few workers have contracts, and where informal work arrangements prevail, employers’ expectations and demands can shift without warning,” the report notes.
This lack of outside regulation is only compounded by immigrant workers’ hesitance to speak out for fear of deportation or retaliation. Only 43 percent of domestic workers surveyed had U.S. citizenship, and more than 80 percent of housecleaners were not authorized to work in the country. Citizenship status corresponded to treatment: 15 percent of workers with citizenship were subject to wage theft, compared to 35 percent of unauthorized workers. A quarter of unauthorized workers were threatened by employers who capitalized on their already tenuous status, compared to only 10 percent of documented workers.
The data was collected before Trump took office, after running and winning on a platform of toughening immigration laws and increasing enforcement of existing ones. But even before he became president, immigration policing on the Texas-Mexico border was aggressive, and labor protections in the right-to-work state were weak. The state is home to the lowest-paid workers in the country, with more paid at or below minimum wage than anywhere else. In May 2017, Texas also implemented SB4, encouraging local officials to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal immigration services.
“For decades, domestic workers have been working in the shadows of our economy with limited rights and protections,” said Linda Burnham, Senior Advisor at National Domestic Workers Alliance, in a press release. “[This report] should serve as a warning of the human cost when the rights of immigrants and workers are completely eroded.”
Olivia Figueroa, the executive director of AYUDA, used to be one of these women. She crossed the border from Mexico in 1986, looking for “a better life, or what they call the American Dream,” and headed west to meet a cousin in Los Angeles, who got her a job as a housekeeper for a local family. At first, Figueroa expected to work her shifts each day and go home each night. But the family encouraged her to live with them. They gave her food and shelter rent-free, but it came at a hidden price: Since she was always there, she was always expected to work. And since she was undocumented, she wasn’t expected to speak up. “She would mention things to them—that she wanted to find a better job, get better pay—and they said they would call immigration and she could get deported,” her daughter, Natalie Figueroa, said. Finally, at the urging of a stranger she met at a local bus stop, Olivia Figueroa fled.
It’s been more than three decades since Figueroa came to the United States, and she’s long been liberated from that job. But conditions for women at the border are eerily similar today: There’s Irma, who immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to become a live-in nanny and housekeeper without a written contract, and “hardly ever saw the sun”; and Maria, a housecleaner who suffered from abuse but felt powerless to report the violence after her abuser told her “no one would believe me because I didn’t have papers.”
These women shared their stories with volunteers, but many others are still afraid to speak, for fear of getting reported or deported. Figueroa needed that woman at the bus stop to tell her better, fairer wages were out there, and that seeking them out didn’t always mean persecution. Now she does the same for the growing body of immigrant women working domestic jobs in the outskirts of El Paso with AYUDA. “Once they hear they’re not alone they get motivated and they’re willing to find a better job rather than stay there,” said the elder Figueroa, through a translation by Natalie. “Now the ladies are more open to learning about their rights and they’re willing to make a change—come together and make a change.”
Community groups like AYUDA support local workers and help them organize around labor rights. But finding a new job is more complicated than just knowing there’s a better one out there: Border towns are teeming with police cars, and domestic workers who fear deportation often feel it’s safer to live where they work rather than risk exiting each day. (The report suggests increasing access to public transportation and affordable housing to offer easier channels in and out.) “This was a region that was already militarized before, but now there are more agents patrolling the region and limiting the free transit in public spaces,” said Rosa Sanluis, a community organizer with Fuerza del Valle. And when policies like SB4—and the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy—mean a call for help could turn into a reason for deportation, domestic workers might continue to choose silence.
“The fear is historic in this region and the policies of hate in this administration have reached new levels,” said Sanluis. “The wall of fear is bigger than the wall we have already.”