A federal appeals court Tuesday strengthened the hand of undocumented workers who file claims against employers, making it less likely that their illegal status could be used against them.
The precedent-setting opinion, closely watched by labor and immigrant rights groups, blunts the effect of a controversial 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that denied back pay to an illegal immigrant who was fired for union organizing. Immigrant advocates have said that some employers have used the ruling to intimidate immigrant workers, implying that they had no workplace rights.
Under Tuesday's decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, employers facing discrimination charges or other claims can't ask about a worker's immigration status in hopes of blocking damages.
"Granting employers the right to inquire into workers' immigration status in cases like this would allow them to raise implicitly the threat of deportation and criminal prosecution every time a worker, documented or undocumented, reports illegal practices," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the ruling. Reinhardt said such inquiries would discourage workers from coming forward, and "countless acts of illegal and reprehensible conduct would go unreported."
The case involved a Fresno manufacturer of irrigation equipment that fired 23 longtime Latina and Asian workers after they failed to pass a test administered in English. Represented by the Legal Aid Society, the workers claimed their firings were discriminatory because English wasn't necessary to perform the job.
The case was filed in 2001. A year later, after the Supreme Court decision, attorneys for Nibco Inc., an Elkhart, Ind.-based firm that no longer owns the Fresno manufacturer, began pressing the former workers for details about their immigration status. Company attorneys contended that if the workers were in the country illegally, they shouldn't be entitled to back pay or other remedies, and thus their claims were moot.
Legal Aid attorney Christopher Ho, who represented the fired workers, said that was not an uncommon response.
"When such a case is filed nowadays, typically the first question is about the status of the workers," he said.
Ho obtained an order from a lower court to stop the questioning of immigration status. That order was upheld Tuesday.
An attorney representing Nibco did not return calls for comment.
The appeals court also said illegal immigrants probably could collect back pay in a discrimination case, despite the Supreme Court ruling regarding union organizing drives.
"This removes a huge sword that hangs over undocumented workers when they want to assert their rights," Ho said. "It says that [the Supreme Court ruling] does not authorize a fishing expedition into people's backgrounds to dig up dirt."