Behind the inflammatory headlines and pro-and anti-immigration protests, undocumented migrants were granted a small win in California that went unnoticed in the mainstream media.
In late June, the California Supreme Court ruled that all workers – regardless of if they are in the U.S. legally or not – are protected from harassment and retaliation, and are entitled to protection under state law. Plaintiff Vicente Salas injured his back while working at Sierra Chemical and was fired shortly after filing a workers compensation claim and it came to light that he used a fake social security number to gain his job. Salas sued Sierra Chemical for not accommodating his injury and won because state employment protections extend to everyone no matter what their immigration status is.
This is not a sexy case. It doesn’t tug at the heartstrings like the stories about the hundreds of Latin American children flowing across the border or strike readers with fear like articles about thousands of criminals without papers walking around.
Salas’ case is so blasé that only the Los Angeles Times wrote about it it along with a handful of law blogs, including Mark Chuang for the Employment Law Observer:
The case highlights the complex interplay between state and federal law with respect to undocumented workers. California law states that “[a]ll protections, rights and remedies available under state law . . . are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status . . . .” Federal law requires that employers verify the work eligibility of all new employees. … The Court went on to state that “not allowing unauthorized workers to obtain state remedies for unlawful discharge . . . would effectively immunize employers that . . . discriminate against their workers on grounds such as disability . . . or fail to pay the wages that state law requires.”
In what (little) has been written about Salas’ case, there’s no descriptions of protesters outside the court yelling at him for stealing American jobs, to go back to his own country and other anti-immigration epithets. There wasn’t even a spectacle from pro-immigration activists even though this ruling may lead to other employment discrimination cases brought by undocumented immigrants.
While the California court didn’t make a political statement about reforming the immigration system or if undocumented immigrants should be deported, the court highlighted something that U.S.-born residents take for granted – the right to be treated with decency at work.
According to Pew, there are about 8.4 million undocumented workers in the U.S. with the majority of them from Latin America in hope of jobs and the opportunity to leave behind poverty. The court didn’t tell Californians to screw federal immigration law and I-9 forms, but to treat all employees like people.
Immigration has become such a polarizing subject that behind the headlines and the protests and the yelling that we begin to forget that an “undocumented worker”, “illegal alien” or whatever you want to call them is actually a person who is likely leaving behind something much worse.
That’s the real takeaway behind the California Supreme Court’s ruling – treat your workers with respect, regardless of where they came from.