Immigrant & Refugee Rights (IRR) Project

Matthew K. Handley Acting Project Director  
Evelyn Nunez


Established in 1978, the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (IRR Project) has served as a critical resource for some of the most vulnerable populations in the Washington, D.C. area: newcomers and non-English speakers who are often unaware of their rights and protections under U.S. law.

Many immigrants fear the repercussions of reporting civil rights violations, and suffer employment discrimination, wage theft, and sexual harassment in the workplace under the threat of being fired or reported to immigration authorities. To help mitigate their exploitation and marginalization, the IRR Project represents hundreds of immigrant workers who face discrimination on the basis of national origin, language fluency, legal status, race, and other grounds.

IRR ClientThe IRR Project often works with its clients to file charges of discrimination with the EEOC or local agencies, such as the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights. The Project staff pursues litigation in both the EEOC and federal courts on behalf of immigrants, and provides representation in a range of issues, including: discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, medical care and government services; sexual assault and/or abuse by employers; and loan mortgage modification scams. In cases where clients have been victims of crimes, the IRR Project staff continues to work with the EEOC and other agencies to help procure U-Visas so that the clients can prosecute the criminal bad actors who abused them.

The IRR Project aims to make its clients whole for the wages that they were owed, or
the abuse that they suffered. In addition, its litigation helps to educate employers about their need to comply with local and federal laws regardless of the immigration status of the employee, and creates injunctive relief to prevent future bad practices.

Project Activities

  • Legal representation – As a direct response to civil rights violations, the IRR Project collaborates with various local law firms to provide pro bono legal representation to immigrants suffering discrimination in employment, housing and other aspects of their daily lives.
  • Community Outreach – To prevent further exploitation and abuse of immigrants and refugees, the IRR Project partners with community-based organizations to raise greater awareness of housing and employment rights among immigrant groups. The Project staff provides “Know Your Rights” presentations at various community centers in the D.C. area, and encourages victims of discrimination and harassment to report any of these violations to the authorities.
  • Investigative Reports – In addition to its advocacy and outreach efforts among immigrant communities, the IRR Project works to educate the greater non-immigrant population about the discriminatory treatment of immigrants and refugees in the D.C. area. To this end, the IRR Project has published a series of reports investigating the problems of discrimination and marginalization faced by immigrant communities in the D.C. area.


2922 Sherman Avenue Tenants’ Assoc., et al., v. District of Columbia

Together with Relman & Dane PLLC, Jenner & Block LLP and Tycko & Zavareei LLP, the Committee obtained a settlement worth $700,000 on behalf of twenty-four tenants of the Columbia Heights/Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood alleging discrimination on the basis of national origin.

The settlement resolved the tenants’ claims that District officials selectively enforced housing codes when they condemned large apartment buildings in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods and forced tenants to move, under the guise of “code enforcement” with little or no notice to the tenants, and no relocation assistance.

Equal Rights Center, et al. v. City of Manassas, et al.

The Committee and co-counsel, Beveridge & Diamond PC filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Equal Rights Center and eight Hispanic individuals against the City of Manassas and the Manassas City Public Schools (MCPS) alleging that the City and its schools system engaged in a systematic effort to target, discriminate against, and evict the City’s Hispanic residents. The lawsuit alleged that the City violated the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Fair Housing Act, and federal and state civil rights laws by selectively enforcing zoning and related laws to target Hispanic residents and by engaging in illegal harassment, intimidation and coercion based on national origin and familial status.

In October 2008, the parties reached a settlement agreement which included expansive new protections for residents who are subject to the city’s residential inspections. The agreement also resolved allegations that the Manassas City Public School system improperly released student information to aid the city in its inspection efforts. In addition, the settlement provided for a payment of $775,000 to resolve all the plaintiffs’ claims of damages, attorneys’ fees and administrative costs related to the lawsuit.

Lopez, et al. v. NTI, et al.

Co-counseling with Brown Goldstein Levy LLP and CASA of Maryland, the Committee successfully represented 42 individual immigrant workers from Africa, Mexico, and Central America who had claims for unpaid minimum, overtime and promised wages after digging trenches and installing fiber-optic cable for the benefit of Verizon. After CASA of Maryland spearheaded the “Can You Pay Me Now” public relations campaign against Verizon (, Brown, Goldstein & Levy coordinated the litigation against eight of Verizon’s subcontractors, which to date has resulted in a partial settlement of $105,000. This amount covers a portion of the worker’s unpaid promised wages as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. Brown, Goldstein & Levy, together with the Committee and CASA of Maryland continue to litigate this case.

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You Have The Right To Be Paid For Your Work

If you did the work, your employer must pay you regardless of your immigration status.

You Have The Right To Be Paid The Minimum Wage

  • The minimum wage in Washington, D.C. is $12.50/hour
  • The minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75/hour
  • The minimum wage in Virginia is $7.25/hour
  • Exceptions: Employers don’t have to pay the minimum wage if the employee receives tips or if he/she is a farm worker.

You Have The Right To Receive Overtime

  • Generally, the federal and local laws mandate that an employer pay an employee overtime if the employee works more than 40 hours in one week.
  • Note: Some employers assume that if they pay a salary or by project, they can avoid paying overtime. Call us if you’re working more than 40 hours in one week.
  • Overtime should be paid at the rate of 1.5 times your regular hourly rate. For example, if your employer normally pays you $10/hour, your overtime rate would be $15/hour. If you work 50 hours per week, you would earn ($10 x 40 hours) + ($15 x 10 hours) = $550 per week for 50 hours.

Time That You Spend Waiting For Your Employer – Do You Have To Be Paid For That?

  • If an employee is required to arrive at a worksite at a specific time but he/she has to wait until he/she can begin working, he/she should be paid for this waiting time.
  • Exception: If an employee has the option to stay and wait or to leave before receiving an assignment, the employer generally does not have to pay for that waiting time.

You Have The Right To Be Paid

  • Generally, employees must be paid every two weeks.
  • If an employee is fired from work, he/she must be paid shortly thereafter, but it depends on the jurisdiction to determine whether he/she must be paid on the same day that he is fired, the next day, or the next pay day. Please contact us with inquiries.
  • If an employee quits, he/she generally must be paid the next regular pay day or before seven days depending on the jurisdiction.

Unlawful Deductions

  • Generally, employers may not make deductions that decrease an employee’s wages below the minimum wage.
  • Deductions, if permitted and authorized, by the employee might be lawful.
  • Transportation: Generally, if an employer transports an employee for the benefit of the employer, the employer may not deduct the transportation costs.
  • Tools: An employer may not deduct the cost of tools from an employee’s wages. An employer may not deduct the cost of safety equipment if the equipment is necessary in order to abide with OSHA.
  • Uniforms: An employer may not collect the cost for uniforms if wearing the uniform is required by law or required by the employer.


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