On Friday, a California appeals court brought us one step closer to ensuring that the protection of our laws – including the constitutional right to a fair trial and an impartial jury – extends to everyone.
In a personal injury case involving a former factory worker who obtained a devastating lung disease after being exposed to a harmful chemical at work, the appeals court granted a new trial to Wilfredo Velasquez, whose immigration status the judge had revealed to the jury even though it was not relevant to his claims.
At trial the jury found the company negligent, but declined to award damages to Velasquez, suggesting it was prejudiced by information about his immigration status. In reversing the trial court, the appeals court acknowledged “the strong danger of prejudice attendant with the disclosure of a party’s status as an undocumented immigrant.”
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, together with UC Hastings Appellate Project and the People for the American Way, filed an amicus brief in the case, Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc. dba Advanced Biotech.
U.S. law provides the same employment rights and protections to all workers, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, but vindicating these rights is often difficult or impossible for undocumented workers. Employers threaten to have them fired or deported if they complain or report workplace violations. Workers (rightfully) fear their immigration status could be discovered if they file a lawsuit. Judges and juries may be prejudiced against them.
Friday’s decision is an important victory, just as it is an important reminder that we must continue to press to make justice and the courts accessible to all.
We can start by working to ensure that existing laws designed to enable workers to come forward and report unlawful employment conditions are respected and enforced.
New California laws that took effect last year increase penalties for employers who threaten to have a worker deported for exercising their employment and labor rights. Employers who violate this law are not only liable for monetary damages, but their business licenses can be revoked and they can be held criminally liable for extortion.
Similarly, U visas provide an important protection for workers who are victims of workplace crimes, including retaliatory threats of deportation. But due to misunderstandings, lack of training and prejudice, dozens of law enforcement agencies across the state refuse to sign the law enforcement certification that is a prerequisite to apply for a U visa, leaving workers in these areas unprotected and thus often unable to pursue claims against retaliatory employers.
We need to do more to educate employers, workers and law enforcement about these laws and ensure that they provide meaningful protection and enable immigrant workers to come forward. By closing the gap between what the law says and what the reality is for immigrant workers, we will raise the playing field and working conditions for everyone.
Jennie Pasquarella is staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. Follow ACLU_SoCal.