As Congress and President Barack Obama work toward a federal immigration overhaul, lawmakers in California's Capitol are moving to strengthen the rights of immigrant workers in the state.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg highlighted two measures, which he is carrying, in a news conference Tuesday, saying it's important to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their legal status.
"California's immigrant workers make a valuable contribution to our economy and the American dream," Steinberg said. "If we're going to be serious about immigration reform in this country and hopefully establish a path to citizenship for people who are currently undocumented, it begins by treating those people and all people with respect in the workplace."
Both of Steinberg's bills received enough votes Tuesday to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. They target employers who use threats related to immigration status to coerce or abuse employees as well as foreign labor contractors that recruit workers from overseas and help them gain legal employment status.
Under Senate Bill 666, employers who retaliate against employee complaints by threatening to report the immigration status of workers or their families could lose their business license and face civil penalties of up to $10,000.
A second measure, Senate Bill 516, would set licensing and employee relations standards for foreign labor contractors. Supporters say those requirements, which include disclosure of the terms of employment for workers recruited by such firms, could prevent workers from being tricked or intimidated into forced labor or other forms of slavery.
"While many employers and contractors behave ethically, others do not," Steinberg said. "Some employers continue to use immigration status as blackmail, to force workers into debt bondage, to ignore basic workplace safety, to sexually harass employees and to inhibit co-workers from reporting the sexual harassment or mistreatment of other workers or to hold back wages."
Steinberg was joined at the news conference by farmworker-rights and anti-trafficking advocates, as well as by several workers who shared stories of threats and intimidation.
Another measure similar to Steinberg's bill on threats related to legal status - Assembly Bill 263 by Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina - is working its way through the Assembly.
While there is no formal opposition on file for either of Steinberg's bills, the president of a group that opposes illegal immigration vowed to fight both measures.
"Illegal aliens by definition are criminals in violation of our federal immigration laws, which are still on the books, so rewarding them in any way is aiding and abetting criminal behavior," said Barbara Coe, founder and president of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform. "They can go home and be protected in their own country."
Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544. Follow her on Twitter @capitolalert.