Injured on the Job, Undocumented Workers Are Wary of Legal Help

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By Stephen Lee

President Donald Trump’s deportation threats are cowing undocumented workers into declining legal remedies when they’re hurt on the job, according to workers in the immigration bellwether state of California.

Nearly 10 percent of the labor force in California is undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and the state is home to the most undocumented immigrants in the nation.

Carlos, a 56-year old undocumented worker from Mexico, developed carpal tunnel syndrome last year while working as a dishwasher in Yountville, Calif., just north of San Francisco in Napa County. He filed for workers’ compensation and soon found another job at a different restaurant. But that employer fired him when he missed work to attend a workers’ compensation hearing, a violation of California law.

He now has a new job and isn’t contesting his dismissal.

“I understand that this is unlawful, but I’m afraid of reporting this kind of situation, because I’m afraid of deportation,” Carlos told Bloomberg BNA through a translator. “I am worried that, at any time, they’re going to come arrest me at work.”

The workers interviewed by Bloomberg BNA asked that their last names not be included for fear of deportation.

‘I’m Very Afraid’

Like Carlos, Sofia, a Mexican fieldworker in Santa Rosa, Calif., has a workers’ compensation case in the works after hurting her arm and shoulder pulling vine roots, requiring surgery. But she says she’s reluctant to show up to her dates with the workers’ compensation administrative court—and even go to the doctor—because of the Trump administration’s tough stance.

“My life has changed a lot,” Sofia told Bloomberg BNA through a translator. “I don’t go out. Everything you hear on the news tells you to be careful, because immigration agents will be there to grab you. I’m very afraid. I now live a life that is pretty much enclosed, indoors. I tell my husband every day to be careful when you drive, because you could get a ticket and that could be a pretense for them to arrest you.”

Rosita, a 40-year old cleanup worker from Mexico who now lives in Suisun City, Calif., is going through the workers’ compensation system after hurting her hands and right arm while cleaning heavy equipment in 2014. But once she heals, she isn’t sure what she’ll do.

“I’m afraid of returning to work,” Rosita told Bloomberg BNA, also through a translator. “I don’t feel confident enough to go back to work. With the new president and all the changes, I’m definitely afraid.”

Injuries and preventable accidents plague workers in risky jobs that disproportionately employ undocumented immigrants, especially Hispanics. Foreign-born workers, including those who may be documented, make up just 15 percent of the labor force, but account for 18 percent of all workplace fatalities, according to a November 2009 Population Reference Bureau study.

Sessions Gets Tougher

Those concerns have been amplified in recent days, with the Trump administration signaling an even harder line against immigrants.

On March 29, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly wrote that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will continue to make arrests in public places. The letter, sent to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, came in response to her concerns that ICE officials appeared to be “stalking” undocumented immigrants at courthouses to make arrests.

Then, on April 11, Sessions spoke out firmly in support of tougher criminal immigration enforcement in remarks at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth,” Sessions said, referring specifically to organized crime gangs and drug dealers who cross the border illegally.

On the same day, Sessions sent a memo to all 94 U.S. attorneys directing them to prioritize illegal immigration prosecutions.

In Trump’s first month, illegal crossings dropped by 40 percent, and in his second month they fell by 72 percent compared to December 2016, Sessions said. The attorney general has also threatened to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities that don’t turn over undocumented immigrants.

Signs Among the Legal Community

Labor lawyers are also feeling the effects of the Trump orders. At Abogado Gomez, a San Bruno, Calif. law firm specializing in workers’ compensation for the undocumented, business has fallen off by one third since Trump took office, Kenneth Martinson, an attorney at the firm said.

“Pre-Trump, a lot of [undocumented workers] thought they couldn’t report things to the Department of Labor,” Martinson told Bloomberg BNA. “It was an education campaign among my colleagues to say, ‘You have rights. Don’t worry about your residency status. Residency has nothing to do with seeking remedies and benefits.’ But Trump has exacerbated the fear.”

Further south, Bernardo De La Torre, a workers’ compensation lawyer in Whittier, Calif., said his business is down 20 percent since the Trump administration began. De la Torre told Bloomberg BNA that his firm, the Law Office of Bernardo De La Torre, ran radio advertisements for 18 years to establish itself among the Latino community.

“Then I slowed down and actually stopped, because I was doing fine,” he said. “But recently I went back on the radio. My intakes were down.”

Changing Attitudes

According to De La Torre, Hispanic workers were reluctant to raise concerns about workplace safety and health even before Trump took office.

“Without painting everything with a broad brush, in Latino and Mexican culture, men don’t complain,” De La Torre said. “Just the fact that you’re complaining already puts you in a bad light.”

That description fits Carlos, a 32-year-old undocumented Mexican vineyard worker in St. Helena, Calif., who almost died in early 2015 when a tree fell on him. He quickly went back to work, though, and in late March he told Bloomberg BNA through a translator that he “would be more worried not to report” any future injuries, even under Trump, “because I would be going against my health.”

On April 2, Carlos and his wife were attacked and beaten by a gang of 20 people at a rest stop outside Napa, Calif. The next day he told Bloomberg BNA he believed the attack to be a racially-motivated hate crime. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have identified a recent sharp increase in hate crimes, blaming Trump’s often fiery rhetoric as the key motivator.

When asked if he now felt differently about reporting injuries or seeking to claim benefits, Carlos said he “definitely” did.

“Because I proved it to myself yesterday,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington, D.C. at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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