Just because you’re an undocumented worker, that doesn’t mean you have no civil rights. That’s the message from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Mexican government.

EEOC offices in Dallas, Miami and New York have signed historic agreements with Mexican consulates with the goal of protecting and educating “all Mexicans about their employment rights of in the workplace, regardless of immigration status.” The agreements followed similar initiatives in cities including Birmingham, Ala.; Cleveland; Detroit; and New Orleans.

As part of the local outreach, the EEOC will present educational events, provide Spanish-language information and deliver training sessions to consulate staff about the EEOC and the laws it enforces.

The EEOC for years has declared the "settled principle" that the federal employment discrimination statutes cover undocumented workers. While it's illegal for employers to hire people who are not authorized to work in the United States, it also is illegal to violate their civil rights.

The EEOC's explanation is succinct: "If employers were not held responsible for discriminating against unauthorized workers, it would create an incentive for unscrupulous employers to employ and exploit these workers. This would directly undermine the enforcement of the immigration laws by encouraging the employment of unauthorized workers."

However, undocumented workers often have been reluctant to report harassment or discrimination to the EEOC, fearing it could result in their deportation.

The agency's outreach efforts with the Mexican consulates are intended to counter that fear while raising awareness among all immigrants of the EEOC's mission.

"It is important that people working in the United States, whether U.S. citizens or citizens of another country, understand they are entitled to work in an environment free from illegal discrimination," Janet Elizondo, director of the EEOC's Dallas office, said on Monday in a statement posted on its website. "This Memorandum of Understanding will help ensure this information is communicated to workers who may not be aware these rights exist."

The EEOC in the past has been criticized for overlooking discrimination against Latino farm workers, especially women who experienced sexual harassment. In recent years, however, the agency has increasingly focused on such workers, viewing them as among the most vulnerable of all.

In its latest strategic enforcement plan, the EEOC included protecting immigrant workers as a top priority.

In one notable case, the EEOC in 2010 sued Giumarra Vineyards, one of the largest growers of table grapes in the United States, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that a 17-year-old female migrant worker was sexually harassed and others were subjected to retaliation.

The EEOC asked the court for a protective order "to preclude the discovery of the immigration status of any Plaintiff-intervenor, class member of third-party witness." The order was granted, and the court ordered all immigration-related documents destroyed after the litigation was complete.

The case settled in July 2012, with the 3,000-worker company agreeing to comprehensive changes in its procedures for dealing with discrimination and retaliation, and to spend a total of $350,000 to resolve EEOC’s case.

Contact Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com.