WASHINGTON — In the first lawsuits filed under a provision of the 1986 immigration reform law, the Justice Department on Tuesday charged a New Mexico-based airline with discriminating against a job applicant who is not a U.S. citizen.
The suits alleged that Mesa Airlines, a regional carrier based in Farmington, N.M., hired at least 49 pilots--all of them U.S. citizens--while refusing to hire Zeki Yeni Komsu or any other non-citizen pilots since he applied for a job in December, 1986.
Komsu, a Turk, has held the status of permanent resident alien of the United States since Oct. 9, 1986, and intends to become an American citizen, according to the suits.
The refusal to employ Komsu, who has since gone to work for another airline at higher pay than Mesa offers, violated the immigration law's prohibition of employment bias on the basis of citizenship status, the suits charge.
Mesa maintains two pools of pilot applicants: one for qualified U.S. citizens and the other for qualified non-citizens, said Lawrence J. Siskind, special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices, an office created by the 1986 immigration law.
The government suits--one brought on behalf of Komsu and the other a class action charging a pattern and practice of discriminatory actions by Mesa--said that the airline refuses to hire anyone from the non-citizen pool as long as there are qualified U.S. citizen applicants.
The suits ask that an administrative law judge permanently bar Mesa from engaging in discriminatory practices and order a $1,000 penalty for each individual illegally discriminated against.
Two Other Cases
Siskind said that his office has settled two other cases out of court, one Monday against a California flashlight maker and the other last September against a New Jersey food producer. The special counsel, who declined to name the companies, said that each company employs about 200 people and had agreed to rehire the employee involved with back pay and benefits.
Both cases involved Latinos who were allegedly discriminated against because of their citizenship status. The law also bars discrimination on the basis of national origin, an issue involved in some of the other 38 cases now under investigation by Siskind's office.
Siskind said in an interview that the Mesa suit presents "a clear-cut issue which makes it a good first case."
Gary Risley, an attorney for Mesa, did not return a reporter's call.
Under the law, an employer may choose a U.S. citizen over a non-citizen if the citizen is at least as well qualified as the non-citizen. But in Mesa's case, Siskind said, the alleged discrimination was based on a "wholesale" practice, rather than one-on-one selection.
He added that Komsu is "more qualified" than some of the other citizen applicants hired by Mesa, having flown more than the others.
The immigration law does permit discrimination in hiring based on citizenship status for reasons such as "security" when an employer is contracting with sensitive government agencies, but this did not apply in Mesa's case, a Justice Department spokesman said.
The 1986 law created Siskind's office to meet concerns of Latino groups that the law's ban on hiring illegal aliens would prompt some penalty-conscious employers to avoid hiring any foreigners or foreign-appearing persons. The Reagan Administration opposed the creation of the office on grounds that it would trigger an avalanche of job discrimination lawsuits.