Last September, Daniella Vieira sent an email to the head of the company where she works. Vieira, 24, is a relatively low-level financial analyst at Johnson & Johnson, and because she directed the email to the very top — Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky — she had little expectation she’d get a response.
But she was moved to write because she had some serious concerns about herself personally — and about the culture at her office. President Donald J. Trump had just announced that he was not going to renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which permits immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to continue to work in the country. As a DACA recipient and the child of Brazilian immigrants who has lived in the United States since she was 11, Vieira knew her status was threatened absent legislative action. And amid that uncertainty, she was frustrated with the culture of silence that she felt had taken over her workplace around the issue.
“People don’t understand what it means to have DACA,” Vieira said. “They’ll think, ‘Oh, is this person here at work illegally? Could I get in trouble by associating with them?’... Johnson & Johnson talks about protecting employees and creating an environment where everyone can be their authentic self. I felt like I was being left out of that.”
Gorsky, however, did respond, and Johnson & Johnson has been one of numerous corporations that have provided vocal support for “Dreamers,” as well as more direct assistance for their Dreamer employees.
In many regards, this simply makes good business sense for the companies; they would lose a significant amount of economic and intellectual might if DACA were left to expire or if federal immigration laws were changed in ways that led to Dreamers’ deportation. And experts agree that in a fraught political environment in which misinformation can take hold quickly, it’s also smart management for companies to open conversations about immigration and the workplace, both from a legal standpoint and a corporate social responsibility perspective.
Understanding the Protections of Dreamers
At press time, DACA remains intact, but the legal status of its recipients remains in limbo. An April 24, 2018, ruling by the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia affirmed the continuation of the policy. However, the White House announced that it will continue its efforts to unwind it, and Congress is still exploring legislation that may alter the state of the program.
The ongoing debate has given corporations that support DACA — and their Dreamer employees in particular — time to make a case for the immigrant employees’ value to the U.S. economy. According to research from FWD.us, a consortium of corporations advocating for DACA recipients, 91% of the estimated 800,000 Dreamers in the United States are currently employed, and their deportation would account for an estimated $460 billion loss in GDP in the next 10 years, and $3.4 billion in turnover costs.
To keep that economic engine running, numerous companies — especially technology firms — have taken specific actions. Amazon.com, Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Uber Technologies, Inc. have joined court challenges in response to the White House’s efforts to rescind DACA; Apple Inc., Facebook, Inc. and IBM Corp. have joined those firms in providing direct legal support for Dreamer employees.
Microsoft, for instance, announced that it has 45 employees who are DACA recipients, and it’s spotlighted its support for them as an opportunity to discuss broader immigration reform and its economic impact.
“We recognize the challenges for high-skilled immigration reform are significant, but in the end, we believe reforms are critical to improving fairness in the immigration process for those who contribute so significantly to our country’s economy, and to ensuring the U.S. remains a magnet for the world’s top talent,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a statement earlier this year. “These are key pieces to preserving and building on our nation’s strength and global competitiveness.”
While employers consider what their direct response should be, workplace legal experts recommend being open with the entire workforce about their understanding of the law and the protections it provides all immigrants, including Dreamers. (For instance, an employer might reiterate that any DACA recipient who has kept his or her status reverified remains able to legally work in the United States.)
It’s important for individuals working with immigrants to better understand company protocol. Making conversations collective prevents employees from feeling singled out.
Leezia Dhalla, a spokesperson for FWD.us, recommends companywide “know your rights” information sessions for the entire staff, not just for employees who are potentially affected by immigration policies. Such sessions, she added, should name a point person who has an expertise in DACA and other immigration-related issues, and who is available to speak with employees confidentially.
“It’s important not only for the directly impacted people to know, but also for individuals who are working with immigrants, just to better understand what the company protocol is,” she said. And making the conversation collective prevents employees from feeling singled out.
“An employer should be sensitive to people’s different levels of comfort in terms of being public about their immigration status,” Dhalla added. “Companies should make a collective effort to recognize that and take caution to be confidential wherever possible.”
Still, employers bear a legal responsibility for what they do know about their employees. Earlier this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it was increasing its staff and enforcement activities, with an emphasis on “public and national security threats, immigration fugitives and illegal re-entrants.” Employers that do not verify the identity and work authorization for their hires — such as through E-Verify or the mandatory Form I-9 — are subject to fines and criminal penalties, including prison time.
If an employer is uncertain about an employee’s status, keeping silent can protect that worker. But workplace immigration advocates are concerned that employers can take advantage of such silence (e.g., paying immigrant employees less, knowing they’re in no position to protest).
“The best way that [employers] can provide support is not to make any distinctions between their workers in terms of compliance with the law,” said Paula Brantner, senior adviser at Workplace Fairness. “They shouldn’t treat their workers who they suspect of being undocumented any differently or seek to use that status to exploit them in any way.”
Providing Legal Support to DACA Employees
In addition to that kind of high-level communication in support of immigrant employees, workplaces also have taken more direct action in support of Dreamers. For instance, the advocacy group Informed Immigrant recommends that employers help cover the $495 renewal fees for the DACA recipients they employ — and, if possible, the employees’ family members as well. Some organizations also have provided pro bono legal assistance to employees and have made a point to communicate the mental health resources it has available.
“Especially over the past year or so, we’ve seen a ramp-up in enforcement, so there are a lot of individuals whose families are maybe impacted by raids or deportation,” Dhalla said. “Of course, those things can impact your performance in the workplace. So making sure that staff feel supported and have access to mental health resources is going to be really important.”
In anticipation of a scenario in which DACA is rescinded or an individual recipient’s work authorization expires, advocates recommend that employers keep an off-boarding plan in place to provide severance or other support for potentially affected employees. Johnson & Johnson has taken that a step further: In such cases it will make a good-faith effort to find employment for deported employees at corporate offices or affiliates in the countries where they would return. “Even though that’s not my ideal solution, just knowing that my employer is thinking of a safety net for me that far enough in advance makes me really proud,” Vieira said.
Companies ought to consider the impact that silence about DACA can have on a culture.
She also appreciates that Johnson & Johnson is providing pro bono legal support for families of employees in addition to the employees themselves. “When J&J first made the announcement that they were going to provide legal support to DACA employees, they did say employees and their spouses, and their children,” she said. “I’m glad that they were really conscious of the fact that there could be more than one person in the family impacted.”
That said, Vieira and others point out that many employers remain hesitant to touch the issue. In light of that, Dhalla said, companies ought to consider the impact that silence can have on a workplace’s culture.
“Storytelling is really important,” Dhalla said. “There are individuals who have never met a DACA recipient and may not even know that the person working next to them has DACA. Creating opportunities to allow people to share their story and put a human face to this issue can be really beneficial.”
“I think it’s about creating a culture. Being accepting and supportive of DACA employees is the first step,” Vieira said. “I hope it leads to a culture where people understand that we are a global company, and so our people are global. If someone’s family is dealing with an immigration issue that’s tearing her family apart, it doesn’t matter what country they’re from. All that matters is that this is your colleague. This is someone who drives the business along with you, and we should take care of them.”
Mark Athitakis is a freelance writer for WorldatWork.