Rights for Illegal immigrants?

By. Domenico Maceri

Rafael Ruiz may have broken immigration laws because he used fake documents to get a job in the US. In spite of his questionable immigration status, he qualified for workers’ compensation, according to a ruling of a three-judge panel in California.

The ruling applies to all unauthorized immigrants who get hurt at the job site.

The unanimous decision gave hope to the more than 2.6 million undocumented workers in California and several other million in other states.

In essence, the judges said that unauthorized immigrants don’t lose some basic rights because of the fact that they don’t have legal papers.

Ruiz was working for Farmer Bros. Co. when he hurt his shoulders, back, neck, and hands. The company argued unsuccessfully that Ruiz’s illegal status did not entitle him to compensation.

The California ruling is not very different from others which have occurred in several states. The message of these rulings is that once companies hire workers, employees have rights regardless of legal immigration status.

It was a victory not just for Ruiz but for all undocumented workers and every American worker in general. Had the judges gone against Ruiz, there would have been more incentives to hire undocumented workers, particularly in dangerous jobs, since if workers get hurt, you just deport them without paying them.

Being unable to work is tough enough. Receiving workers’ compensation makes life at least acceptable in spite of the physical and emotional pain endured by injured workers.

The ruling was also beneficial for all workers because it serves as protection for minimum wage laws. Although companies sometimes hire undocumented workers and pay them less than the minimum wage, the ruling suggests that if workers sue, they’ll be protected.

To be sure, there are still plenty of incentives to hire undocumented workers because they represent an eager and docile workforce. Without legal papers, workers are in a very vulnerable position in their relationship with their employers. Undocumented workers’ insecurity is reflected by the cloud of deportation which constantly hovers over them.

Given the difficulty of entering the US, deportation would mean another $2,000.00 to a smuggler to get back in the country. Thus, having made it to the US, strong incentives to avoid deportation make complaints unlikely.

This vulnerability makes undocumented workers reluctant to make use of the legal system. When it happens, it’s always a measure of last resort. Thus it’s not unusual for undocumented workers to be mistreated and sometimes not paid at all for work they have done.

It happened recently in the reconstruction efforts in New Orleans. KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, had hired undocumented workers but did not pay them. A group of undocumented workers filed a complaint with the Department of Labor requesting $56,000 in back pay.

Wal-Mart is another major company which has been involved in hiring undocumented workers and underpaying them. Two years ago, 245 unauthorized immigrants doing cleaning work at 60 Wal-Mart stores were arrested. They were working for Wal-Mart subcontractors and some were being paid as little as two dollars a day.

In 2004 Wal-Mart officials agreed to pay $11 million to settle accusation that the company had employed undocumented workers. Wal-Mart agreed to make sure that only workers with legal papers would be hired in the future.

In spite of that, in November of 2005 federal officials arrested 125 undocumented workers at a construction site for a new Wal-Mart distribution center outside Pottsville, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. All 125 workers were deported.

Inevitably, some of these deported workers will try again to return. Once back in the US, they’ll get jobs and some of them might get hurt, like Rafael Ruiz, doing dangerous work.

The message from the three-judge panel in California is important not just for companies which continue to hire undocumented workers. It’s also important for the workers themselves. In the US, if you work and get hurt, companies owe you something whether you have legal papers or not.