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Lawmakers affirm immigrant rights

Immigrant workers in Queens are often loath to alert authorities to unsafe or unfair working conditions for fear of being deported, but several lawmakers want to make it clear that every worker in the borough has the same rights.

State Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) hosted Immigrants Rights Awareness Day at the Richmond Hill Library Sunday.

“This is a huge issue for Queens. This is the immigrant capital of America,” Lancman said. “Many immigrants are not familiar with their rights because they probably come from a place where work place safety is not a priority, but we wanted to do something to raise awareness.”

City Comptroller John Liu and representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor joined Lancman at the street-side table to snag passers-by who might otherwise be wary of contact with any government entity.

“One obstacle is getting the immigrant community to understand that there are parts of the government that are there to assist them and will not report them to other parts of the government,” Lancman said.

For instance, if a worker complains about working conditions to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the administration will not report their immigration status to another government agency.

It is important to get that message out to this particular work force because it is often taken advantage of in Queens, Lancman said.

“This is a very vulnerable population and they are exploited. We see it in every industry,” he said. “Employers know that the undocumented worker probably doesn’t know they have rights or they are afraid to exercise them.”

Richmond Hill is a community largely composed of South Asian, Indo-Caribbean and Latino populations.

But elsewhere in the borough, other lawmakers were addressing different immigrant populations.

In Flushing, where a large Chinese and Korean diaspora have settled, Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) partnered with Lancman to spread the word on her turf.

“Because some workers don’t have legal immigrant status, they feel they are not eligible for minimum wage,” said Linda Sun, a spokeswoman for Meng. “They didn’t know there was a minimum wage or if their employer was withholding their income. They were under the impression they couldn’t do anything about it.”

Meng set up her information booth along the heavily trafficked Main Street to try and dispel those myths.

“People walked away with a lot of information in their hands,” Sun said. “Our office is here and if they have any follow-up questions, we can be the liaison.”

But Lancman conceded that it would take more than information to make work places safer for immigrant laborers.

“It’s one thing to have a law on a book that protects an immigrant worker against retaliation [from an employer],” he said. “It’s another for that law to be applied to protect that worker.”

If a worker does report an unsafe condition, an employer can sometimes find ways to staunch cash flow and make that worker regret it.

But Lancman added that it is important for workers simply to know they have the right to stand up to unscrupulous employers.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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