La Jaula de Oro: Rights, Safety and Resources for Immigrant Workers

31 May
La Jaula de Oro, a ballad by the norteño group Los tigres del norte, mourns the plight of the undocumented worker in the United States.  The verses describe a man struggling to support his family, but unable to enjoy a life of liberty and peace for fear of deportation:
Jaula De Oro Album CoverDe mi trabajo a mi casa
yo no se lo que me pasa
aunque soy hombre de hogar
casi no salgo a la calle
pues tengo miedo que me hallen
y me puedan deportar.
From my work to my home
not sure what’s up with me.
Although a guy who loves his home
I never leave the house
‘cuz I’m scared that they’ll find me
and could deport me

In the chorus, the song’s title, La jaula de oro (The cage of gold), hits the listener with the power of its meaning:

De qué me sirve el dinero
si estoy como prisionero
dentro de esta gran prisión
cuando me acuerdo hasta lloro
y aunque la jaula sea de oro
no deja de ser prisión.
What good to me is money,
if I live like a prisoner
inside this huge prison?
When I think of it I cry.
The cage may be made of gold,
but it never fails to be a prison.
The jaula de oro provides a haunting metaphor of the trapped position of undocumented workers in the United States – where the pressure and necessity of work exists within a society hostile to immigrants.  For most immigrant workers, the jaula is more than abstract.  Poor job security, immigration enforcement, low (and sometimes no) wages, and lack of basic protections create real barriers and physical limitations that, ultimately, wear and tear on their well-being.

As we have seen with other issues, limited rights lead to limited safety and fewer resources for immigrants and immigrant communities. More in-depth research on the connections between employment, immigration, and health can be found in our Immigration and Occupational Health Bibliography. Click here for a pdf.


As in the song, the fear of deportation is very real in the workplace.  The term “immigration raid” generally conjures up images of ICE agents bursting through factory doors, handcuffing and deporting workers, and leaving ghost towns in their wake. These raids have been replaced with a new tactic – the Silent Raid. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now pressures employers to fire their undocumented workers, threatening employers with large fines if they hire workers who do not pass the E-verify system. As a result, immigrant workers around the country – from the Chipotle food servers in Minneapolis, Minnesota to the Pacific Steel workers in Berkeley, California – have been denied their livelihood. The jaula de oro, jobless.

Poor job security and the threat of ICE prevent workers from exercising their employment rights. This leads to:

  • Unsafe workplaces if workers are unable to speak out against hazardous conditions.
  • Wage theft when unscrupulous supervisors, knowing workers have little recourse, cheat their pay.
  • Limited labor organizing when union leaders and members are threatened with layoffs, deportation or detention.

Here are a few examples from public health research (for more resources click here):

  • Punitive employer enforcement measures like E-Verify were linked to increased deportation fear and reduced mobility (Amuedo-Dorantes 2013)
  • A study of Latino day laborers found that workers’ rights abuses, discrimination and social isolation have an additive impact on Latino day laborers well-being and substance use. In the absence of access to treatment or health care, many workers resorted to self-medication. Supportive family, religion, and friendships were identified as protective factors (Nalini 2011).
  • A survey of workers from restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown found that 50% of workers experienced at least one minimum wage violation (Chinese Progressive Association, 2010).


Cultivating Fear Report CoverConsider the young woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch who was raped by her boss in a remote farm field in Central California. She was one of the few female almond pickers at her work. She did not feel safe reporting the assault to the authorities because of her legal status. Living and working on her own in the United States, she needed work to survive. Trapped by the fear of deportation and the male-dominated workplace, she felt that she must continue picking almonds. This woman’s story is played out among undocumented workers in countless situations throughout the US, resulting in mass scale worker vulnerability. Fewer protections can leads to dangerous and even abusive work conditions.

Here are a few examples from public health research (for more resources click here):

  • In a survey of over 400 immigrant Latino from Virginia, only 31% received any job safety training and 55% had no workers’ compensation coverage. Of the 47 (11%) with a work injury in the past 3 years, 27% reported difficulty obtaining treatment, 91% lost time from work and 29% had to change jobs because of the injury. The annual occupational injury rate was 12.2/100 full-time workers, compared to an expected rate of 7.1. (Pranksy 2002)
  • In a study of farmworker mothers in the Salinas Valley, 78% had detectable levels of common pesticides, a level higher than the national average. (Castorina, 2010)  Another study found that the state and federal laws that are meant to protect workers from pesticide exposure are not fully implemented. (Murphy-Green 2002)
  • A study of over 100 male farmworkers from North Carolina found 38% had significant levels of stress, including 5 stressor domains: legality and logistics, social isolation, work conditions, family, and substance abuse by others; 18.4% of farmworkers had impairing levels of anxiety and 41.6% depression; social isolation was strongly associated with anxiety and working conditions were strongly associated with depression. (Hiott 2008)
  • Interviews from 52 farmworker women found that nearly all had experienced or knew someone who had experienced rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar and obscene language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power. (Human Rights Watch, 2012)


Check Please Report Many times, entire workplaces or communities of immigrant workers are trapped in a cycle of low-wage labor. As the result of unenforced labor laws, unscrupulous employers, and the constant fear of deportation and retribution from their employers, many immigrants work for below minimum wage or no wage. In a striking example, immigrant workers in San Francisco’s Chinatown are shortchanged an estimated $8 million a year in wages by employers who violate minimum wage laws.  Li Jun, an immigrant who works in San Francisco and shares a single resident occupancy hotel room with her family, says: “I want the government to enforce minimum wage laws. I want them to allow people like us to have just a little bigger space to live.”  The occupational vulnerability that results from legal status forces immigrants into jobs with low pay and long hours – significantly reducing access to healthcare, healthy food, and healthy housing.

Here are a few examples from public health research (for more resources click here):

  • A review of US farmworkers found that fewer than 20% have health insurance, either through their employer or through government programs. (Villarejo, 2003)
  • The survey of workers from restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown also found that 42% work over 40 hours a week, half of these people work over 60 hours a week and 54% of worker pay for health care out of pocket. (Chinese Progressive Association, 2010)

What will immigration reform do to the jaula?

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744), which recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, includes provisions that will have a major impact on immigrant workers and their workplaces.  For immigrant workers and non-workers alike, the bill creates a “path to citizenship” that is estimated to take up to 13 years to traverse.  It is likely to exclude many of currently undocumented immigrants because of the stringent eligibility criteria.  The millions who are eligible for the newly-created Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) Status will be able to work and, it is estimated, increase their earnings by 15 percent over five years.  The boost to the economy would create an estimated 121,000 jobs each year.  The provisions specifically related to workers and employment include:

  • Increase in visas for skilled immigrants.  Utilizing a points system, individuals would be eligible based on educational degrees, employment experience, the needs of U.S. employers, U.S. citizen relatives, and age.
  • Nonimmigrant W Visas for lower-skilled jobs.  Workers would authorized to work for up to three years for registered employers in an occupation with labor shortages.  W visa holders could eventually apply for merit-based green cards.
  • Mandatory use of E-Verify.  Also known as an Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification System (EEVS), a system for verification of workers’ authorization would be phased in based on employer size over a period of 5 years.
  • “Blue card” status for agricultural workers.  Workers who performed agricultural employment for no fewer than 575 hours between 2011 and 2012 would be eligible and then could apply for a green card in five years.
  • Additional provisions include protections that ensure that employees could collect back pay regardless of their immigration status and increase legal protections for immigrant workers who are fired in violation of labor laws.

The National Immigrant Law Center provides an excellent a summary and analysis of all of the provisions of the bill and the Washington Post has outlined the 48 amendments added during the Senate Judiciary hearings.

The jaula presented by Los tigres del norte is tragic and bleak.  The singer grives:

…mi Mexico querido
del que yo nunca me olvido
y no puedo regresar.
…my beloved Mexico
that I never forget
and can never return to.

Fortunately, despite many barriers and limitations, immigrant workers engage daily in forms of struggle to assert their rights.  On an individual level, many immigrant workers, such as the woman who survived sexual abuse in her workplace in the almond fields, are connecting with resources and services that support them as they struggle to make a life in the United States.  Others come together to create workplace or political advocacy groups.  Around the country, immigrants, supported by advocacy groups, unions, and other workers, have been fighting in workplace-by-workplace winning back jobs and wages and increased labor protections.  Some groups, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been able to advance public policies.  Others, such as the Chipotle food servers and the Pacific Steel workers, have launched local workers’ rights movements.  These efforts to gain greater worker protections and more progressive immigration laws, are essential to protecting the health of immigrant workers.


One Response to “La Jaula de Oro: Rights, Safety and Resources for Immigrant Workers”

  1. Mandy June 3, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    Thank you for this very important and in-depth piece.

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