Published June 23, 2010
Republican lawmakers are expressing shock over a Labor Department ad campaign that offers government assistance to illegal immigrants who think they're getting shortchanged for their work -- and at least one of them is planning to write to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for an explanation.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he wants to know why taxpayers are being asked to spend money to ensure that illegals get assistance for fair wages while millions of unemployed Americans struggle to find jobs.
"That's insane," Chaffetz told FoxNews.com on Wednesday. "That's just unbelievable."
But the Labor Department stood by the campaign, saying in a written statement to FoxNews.com that "through Democratic and Republican administrations, the Department of Labor has consistently held that the country's minimum wage and overtime law protects workers regardless of their immigration status."
In a public service announcement posted on the department's website, Solis says workers -- legal or not -- have the right to fair wages.
"You work hard, and you have the right to be paid fairly," she says. "And it is a serious problem when workers in this country are not being paid every cent they earn. Remember, every worker in America has the right to be paid fairly, whether documented or not. So call us."
The ad then offers a toll-free number -- in English and Spanish -- to call for assistance in recovering additional income.
The announcement is part of a bilingual national awareness campaign called "We Can Help," launched in April to reach out to the nation's "low-wage and vulnerable workers." Actor Jimmy Smits and other activist celebrities are featured in the spots.
It is not clear how much the campaign costs.
In a press release issued at the launch of the campaign, the Labor Department said it seeks to help workers learn how to file a complaint with the department's wage and hour division to recover owed wages. Solis said in the press release that she has added more than 250 new field investigators nationwide to participate in the campaign.
"I'm here to tell you that your president, your secretary of labor and this department will not allow anyone to be denied his or her rightful pay -- especially when so many in our nation are working long, hard and often dangerous hours," Solis said. "We can help and we will help. If you work in this country, you are protected by our laws. And you can count on the U.S. Department of Labor to see to it that those protections work for you."
The initiative appears to contradict labor law -- cited on the Labor Department's own website -- which states that employers may hire only people who work legally in the United States. The Obama administration has vowed to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, employers that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called "evildoers."
But the Labor Department says protecting undocumented workers from exploitation benefits all U.S. workers by ensuring there's a level playing field when they seek employment.
"Consider the lost advantage to U.S. workers when unscrupulous employers purposely pass them over to hire workers who are afraid to file a complaint about not being paid the minimum wage or often not being paid at all," the department said in a statement to FoxNews.com.
"Second, no employer should gain an economic edge by hiring undocumented individuals who feel that they must accept working conditions below those required by law," the statement read. "Good employers that abide by the law should not suffer the consequences of those businesses engaged in a race to the bottom."
But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the ranking member on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, called the announcement "an explicit invitation for illegal immigrants to bring the resources and power of the Department of Labor to bear against American employers."
"It is shameful that Secretary Solis has to be reminded that her primary duty is owed to the American people, and not to those who have illegally entered our country," King said in a written statement. "The Obama administration needs to realize that the American people have a right to have their immigration laws enforced."
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called it "astounding" that in an era of double-digit unemployment, the Department of Labor would spend time and "our taxpayer money worrying about fair wages for individuals who are in our country illegally."
"Maybe they should focus their attention on protecting American jobs and enforcing our labor laws," he said in a written statement to FoxNews.com. "After all, it is illegal to hire workers that are in our country illegally."
The unemployment rate is officially 9.7 percent, though many states report unemployment at higher than 10 percent. Including underemployed workers and people who have given up looking for work, the rate moves closer to 17 percent.