How Immigration Debates Are Affecting Workers’ Comp in the U.S.

There are lots of moving parts in the United States’ immigration debate. One of these is the question of who gets workers’ compensation when they get injured on the job.

What if the worker is an undocumented immigrant? And should a person have to decide between the risk of unaddressed injuries and the risk of deportation if they seek medical care?

The legal precedent behind these questions is as disordered as the corresponding political landscape. As we’re about to see, there can be unintended consequences of denying medical aid to undocumented workers who need it.

What else is there to know about immigration and workers’ comp?

States Clamping Down on Injured Undocumented Workers

For some, it may be challenging to imagine a person more in need of compassion than a worker in an unfamiliar country who has suffered an injury.

Instead of making it easier for these people to get solid ground under their feet, including improved health and a permanent home, several states — including Ohio, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, and others — have attempted to enact laws that punish these people for their bad luck instead.

In Ohio, undocumented workers can’t seek medical and other benefits using the workers’ compensation system, even if they have gotten severely injured at work. These laws also seek to close off undocumented workers from using the nation’s court systems to redress the conditions that resulted in their getting injured in the first place.

These states didn’t see these laws over the finish line, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. One reason was that it became clear that these laws would raise, not lower, the likelihood of on-the-job injuries and incentivize employers to hire immigrants to take advantage of their unprotected status.

In a country where employers can, and regularly do, make every attempt to discredit workers’ claims of injuries and reduce their financial and legal obligations, allowing them to specifically and legally single out a specific “class” of person may prove a slippery slope. Additionally, it is hard to understand how this mode of thinking squares with “taking back jobs” for Americans. If anything, it adds one more reason for American business owners to hire the undocumented, only to discard them again when they get injured or the law catches up with them.

Getting Injured at Work Raises the Risk of Deportation

Sustaining a workplace injury can be a life-altering event for Americans, if only until the wound has healed and we can work again. For undocumented workers, getting hurt at work in America can result in the absolute worst-case scenario.

When the New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel collapsed in October 2019, Delmer Joel Ramirez, a construction worker on the project, sustained a life-interrupting injury. But since he is an undocumented laborer, he has moved between detention centers and now faces a very real risk of deportation. The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice has interceded on his behalf by petitioning for a stay on Ramirez’s deportation.

As of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it is illegal for employers in the U.S. to hire immigrants. The question is not whether initiatives to keep illegal immigrants out of the court system and the workers’ comp office after they’ve suffered an injury is out of step with current U.S. laws and leanings on the subject. The questions are:

  • Why does America continue to choose to create “illegal immigrants” by further reducing caps on immigrants and winnowing “legitimate” opportunities to request asylum?
  • If illegal immigrants aren’t valuable to the country, why do employers keep hiring them?
  • If employers are hiring illegal immigrants because they have value to the business and the country, why is there no easier path to citizenship for them?
  • Aren’t illegal immigrants just as useful as business assets as native-born employees?

An immigrant arrives in the U.S. illegally after being denied a visa and asylum. He finds gainful employment and a semi-stable existence at a lumber yard. Then, he sustains an injury that ends his ability to work until he heals.

The crux of the debate is what sort of treatment this man is “entitled to” after this sequence of events. Is it relevant that there is no formal contract of employment between this man and his employer? He received a job offer in a land that prides itself on upward mobility. In what version of events should he not have accepted the opportunity?

“Undocumented” Workers Aren’t Necessarily “Unprotected” Workers

Delmer Joel Ramirez is not the only undocumented worker who has staked his hard-won new life on the belief that America would have his back when it mattered.

Nixon Arias is another. Arias built a life for himself in America after arriving here illegally. After he injured his back mowing the median along a U.S. highway, Arias received medical care until the insurance company discovered he was not a U.S. citizen. Soon after, Arias got arrested.

Arias had falsely claimed U.S. citizenship, but there was nothing fake about how successfully he’d “assimilated” into American culture and carved out a productive life for himself.

Right now, many states in the U.S. do have laws on their books requiring that any worker who sustains an injury on the job, including undocumented ones, may call on the workers’ compensation system for coverage of qualifying injuries. The laws on this subject are a patchwork, with the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania ruling that an undocumented worker has the same rights as a legal one, while the Supreme Court in Wyoming decides the opposite.

So long as border crossings are a useful political distraction in the U.S., it is difficult to see how the 50 states’ views on immigration and workers’ comp will converge anytime soon.