They Got Hurt At Work — Then They Got Deported

They Got Hurt At Work — Then They Got Deported

Like many unauthorized workers, Castro feared he would be deported if he reported an injury. So when he sliced his pinkie on some copper sheeting and got nine stitches, he stayed quiet and kept working. But a few months later, when he wrenched his back passing a load of tiles to a coworker on a roof, the company sent him to a clinic.

There, a company representative filled out the form since it was in English, Castro said. He didn't recall the Social Security number he'd used, so the representative got it from the company and put it on the form.

The clinic gave Castro some pills for the pain. But when he returned for the follow-up appointment, he was told there was a problem with his Social Security number. Castro never returned and treated his back with heating pads and pain relief balms. He figured that was the end of it and continued working for the company for nearly a year.

Then in November 2013, state investigators turned up at his home and arrested him for insurance fraud. He had been turned in by a Command investigator working for Lion.

The workers' comp fraud charges were eventually dropped, but Castro pleaded no contest to fraudulently using someone else's identity. He spent five months in jail and was facing deportation before a judge granted him a voluntary departure to Nicaragua.

"The fake number, I understood because I needed it to work, but I didn't understand the fraud," Castro said by phone from Managua. "I'm not an irrational man. I'm not a criminal. So I didn't understand where I might have committed fraud. It didn't make sense to me. I never filled out a document asking for anything looking for compensation."

Escobar sensed something was wrong when she suddenly stopped hearing from him. Then his phone was disconnected. "Every day, I went on Facebook, hoping and writing to him," she said.

Escobar speaks with her husband, Castro, by phone from outside Miami. Escobar is caring for her grandson while Castro hopes to return to the U.S. despite being charged with insurance fraud after filing a legitimate workers' comp claim. Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Months later, when he finally called her from Nicaragua, she was at once relieved and despondent. In 2015, after her divorce was final, she flew to Nicaragua and married him. But they still live separately, Castro in Nicaragua and Escobar outside Miami, where she cares for her grandson. They are applying for Castro to return, but the conviction could stand in his way.

"It's sad because when you get married, you want to be with your husband," Escobar said. "We waited for so long to be together."

New tactics from employers and insurers

Over the years, numerous courts have upheld the rights of unauthorized workers to receive compensation for workplace injuries, the minimum wage and protection from retaliation for joining unions. The rights stem from their status as employees regardless of their status as immigrants.

A Florida appeals court, for example, ruled in 1982 that "an alien illegally in this country" is entitled to workers' comp benefits.

That presumption was thrown into doubt in 2002 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a group of undocumented plastics workers fired for union activities weren't entitled to back pay because of their immigration status. Insurers and large employers immediately flooded the courts with petitions designed to claw back labor protections for unauthorized immigrants. Leading the fight in Florida were employee leasing firms.

The petitioners argued that undocumented immigrants weren't entitled to workers' comp since their employment was obtained illegally. Lawmakers in several states, from Colorado to North Carolina, introduced bills to block claims by unauthorized workers.

As state courts and legislatures rejected that argument, insurers began pushing to deny immigrants disability benefits, arguing that once their unauthorized status was known, they couldn't return, like other workers, to less intensive jobs. That reasoning succeeded in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but not in Delaware and Tennessee.

In the past few years, employers and insurers have begun using a new tactic, arguing that they should only be responsible for paying lost wages based on what the immigrant would have made in his or her home country. In Nebraska, for example, meatpacker Cargill tried to cut off benefits to Odilon Visoso, who was injured when a 200-pound piece of beef fell on his head, saying it was too difficult to determine what he could earn in Chilpancingo, Mexico, a crime-ridden city controlled by drug cartels near his rural, mountainous village. Nebraska's Supreme Court told the company to use Nebraska wages.

Florida's 2003 law was part of a sweeping overhaul aimed at lowering costs for employers. According to a state Senate review, the division of insurance fraud had pushed for the provision, arguing that "many times illegal aliens are in league with unethical doctors and lawyers who bilk the workers' compensation system." It was easier to prove that immigrants had lied about their identities, the agency said, than to prove their injuries were fabricated.

In recent interviews, however, representatives from the state fraud unit and insurance industry couldn't identify a single case where immigrants had worked with doctors and lawyers to defraud workers' comp. Instead, they noted that false Social Security numbers impede insurers' ability to investigate claims. In addition, they said, those claims could prevent the people whose identity was stolen from getting benefits if they are injured in the future.

Stiles, the attorney who was a key architect of the law, said the state's construction industry was rife with fraud at the time and there was a lot of concern about illegal immigration. She said even immigrants who are "truly injured" should be denied benefits if they're using illegal documents for their claim and "they shouldn't be here in the first place."

"I think we're a nation of laws and we ought to be able to enforce those laws," she said. "And if the federal government won't do it, sometimes the state has to help itself."

Within months of the provision passing, though, the state Senate's banking and insurance committee recommended reconsideration, raising concerns that legitimately injured workers could be disqualified. But that advice was never heeded. The first criminal cases under the law showed up in 2006. The law netted laborers, farmworkers, roofers and landscapers. Several, like Arias, were hurt while working on public projects — renovating schools or pouring concrete at the zoo. But ProPublica and NPR also found arrested workers who had been injured at McDonald's and Best Western and turned in by major insurers like Travelers, The Hartford and Zurich.

In one case, state investigators found that more than 100 workers were all using a Social Security number belonging to a 10-year-old girl.

One of SouthEast's first cases involved a hotel housekeeper at the Comfort Suites in Vero Beach. Yuliana Rocha Zamarripa was cleaning a hotel room in 2010 when she slipped on a bathroom floor and slammed her knee on the bathtub, leaving her with pain and swelling so severe she was unable to walk.

Lion sent her to a doctor but quickly denied her claim based on a false Social Security number.

Rocha's mother had brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 13, and when she turned 17, her father bought her the fake ID so she could work.

With few options, Rocha, now 32, settled her workers' comp case for less than $6,000 plus attorney fees. But she never got the medical care she needed. The week before she was to receive the check, she was arrested while making breakfast for her 4-year-old son.

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Yuliana Rocha Zamarripa's workers' comp claim for a serious knee injury at work prompted her arrest. She was shuffled from county to immigration jails for a year and blames the sexual abuse of her daughter on her inability to protect her at home. Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Yuliana Rocha Zamarripa's workers' comp claim for a serious knee injury at work prompted her arrest. She was shuffled from county to immigration jails for a year and blames the sexual abuse of her daughter on her inability to protect her at home.

Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Rocha spent the next year cycling through jail and immigration detention, separated from her three children. She couldn't sleep, worrying what would happen to them if she were deported.

"I said the Lord's Prayer all the time, and I would end by asking, 'God, give me a chance to return to my children. Don't let anything bad happen to them,' " she said. "I had a feeling that something was not right."

Rocha's instincts were correct. While she was in jail, the father of her children started sexually assaulting their 10-year-old daughter, according to his arrest warrant. "I was left shattered," Rocha said tearfully, "because I didn't know what was happening."

With the help of an attorney, Rocha pleaded to a lesser charge — "perjury not in an official proceeding" — and was finally released. Because of what happened to Rocha's daughter, the attorney was able to get Rocha's deportation canceled and help her obtain a green card.

Rocha eventually received her settlement but had to spend all of it securing her release and dealing with immigration. She now walks with a limp because her injury didn't heal correctly.

"I think it's an injustice what happened to me," she said. "All because I fell, I slipped."

Using workers' comp law to engage in immigration enforcement

The sting had been meticulously planned for weeks. The day before, detectives had scoped out the site — a two-story office building resembling a Spanish colonial mansion near downtown Fort Myers. Before the arrest, they ducked out of sight to surveil the building's back entrance from across the street, according to the detective's case report.

The time and manpower weren't to nab a gang member or drug dealer, but a coordinated effort with Command to snare a 27-year-old roofer who was at a court reporter's office to testify in a deposition for his workers' comp case. A year earlier in 2014, Erik Martinez was working on a roof when a nail ricocheted and hit him in the left eye. He was seeking medical care and lost wages, but like many construction workers, he was using a false Social Security number.

Though it was ostensibly a Florida Department of Financial Services operation, a state detective had worked closely with an attorney for Lion on a plan to alert officers in the final minutes of the deposition. In between questions, the attorney emailed the detective, at one point providing a description of Martinez's clothing.

"We moved our position to the back parking lot," the detective wrote in his report, "where we awaited word that the deposition was nearing an end." Upon receiving confirmation, the detectives moved in, arresting Martinez as he exited the office.

Despite the extensive effort, the state attorney declined to prosecute. But the detective's narrative reveals a larger story: In most of the injury cases reviewed by ProPublica and NPR, state fraud detectives were handed a packet from private investigators with nearly all the information needed to make an arrest.

During an hourlong interview in Tallahassee, Simon Blank, who heads the department's Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, said his detectives conduct their own investigations and make their own decisions. Arrests at depositions, he said, only occur when they have a hard time locating somebody.

"The thing that you need to keep mind is these people are committing identity theft," Blank said. "They're taking somebody else's Social Security number or somebody else's personal information to obtain the work."

While Blank repeatedly expressed compassion for immigrant workers who are legitimately injured, he noted that people whose Social Security numbers are used could face problems with their credit or getting medical care if a claim that wasn't theirs showed up in their records.

The widow of the Mississippi man whose Social Security number Arias was using, Carolyn Lasseter, said it hadn't affected her, but she doesn't "feel sorry for people that are over here illegally." When she bought a house after her husband's death, the bank informed her that a different man had used his number to take out, and pay on, a loan, but it was easily fixed.

Blank's office has been accused by some attorneys of unconstitutionally using the workers' comp law to engage in immigration enforcement. "The real intent behind what they're doing is to regulate immigration," said Florida immigration attorney Jimmy Benincasa, "because they don't feel the federal government is doing enough."

He and others point to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a series of Arizona immigration statutes, including one that made it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to apply for, solicit or perform work.

"Congress decided it would be inappropriate to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek or engage in unauthorized employment," the court wrote. "It follows that a state law to the contrary is an obstacle to the regulatory system Congress chose."

The court noted that while federal law makes it a crime to obtain employment through fraudulent means, the forms and documents that workers submit to get jobs can only be used for federal prosecution — not for state enforcement.

"Our agency is not in the business of going after illegal people," Blank said. "There's quite a lot of other circumstances why people use fake names and IDs and Social Security numbers aside from immigration. You have people who might have other legal problems. You have people who are wanting to stay off the books for specific reasons, whether its divorces or liens put against them."

Among the nearly 800 cases that ProPublica and NPR identified, only five fit the reasons Blank cited. Blank seemed unaware that earlier this year, his own office's annual report noted that "nearly 100 percent" of the suspects investigated under the statute were undocumented workers.

"It appears that it's being applied in a discriminatory fashion," said Dennis Burke, the former U.S. attorney in Arizona who challenged that state's immigration statutes. "How do you justify your enforcement being 99 percent Latino surnames?"

Burke predicted Florida would have a tough time defending the law if it's ever heard on constitutional grounds. After the Arizona ruling in 2012, one attorney challenged the Florida statute's constitutionality, but both Florida and U.S. supreme courts declined to take the appeal. Unlike Arizona's law, the statute doesn't mention immigrants specifically. But Burke said the enforcement data and the stated intent to target immigrant fraud rings are problematic.

Told of what had happened to some of the arrested workers, Blank said he felt for those people but reiterated his agency's obligation to protect the workers' comp system.

"I guess that is a question that our legislature should maybe look into," he said. "What is the balance between the harm and the benefit that's being accomplished?"

"My son was watching. He saw when they put the handcuffs on me"

Juvenal Dominguez Quino worries what will happen to his 8-year-old son with special needs if he gets deported. Dominguez, 43, has lived in the United States for 19 years. But his life was thrown into uncertainty in 2014 when a construction trench he was working in collapsed, burying him in dirt and causing him to sprain his knee.

A month later, Command turned him in to state investigators after he provided a false Social Security number to an insurance adjuster. Dominguez said he told the adjuster he didn't have papers and had made the number up in order to work — details that by themselves wouldn't preclude him from receiving workers' comp. But Dominguez said the adjuster insisted she needed the number to pay him benefits. Sunz Insurance and North American Risk Services, which handled the claim, declined to comment.

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Juvenal Dominguez Quino, 43, has lived in the United States for 19 years. In 2014 a construction trench he was working in collapsed, burying him in dirt and causing him to sprain his knee. Dominguez's attorney has argued for a judge to cancel his deportation because of the harmful effect it would have on his U.S.-born son, Alan. Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Juvenal Dominguez Quino, 43, has lived in the United States for 19 years. In 2014 a construction trench he was working in collapsed, burying him in dirt and causing him to sprain his knee. Dominguez's attorney has argued for a judge to cancel his deportation because of the harmful effect it would have on his U.S.-born son, Alan.

Scott McIntyre for ProPublica

Dominguez was arrested in January 2015 as he was getting his son ready for school.

"My son was watching" from a window, he said, choking up. "He saw when they put the handcuffs on me."

At the time, Dominguez still couldn't bend his knee, so he had to sit with his legs extended across the back seat of the police car.

Dominguez pleaded no contest, and the judge sentenced him to two years' probation and ordered him to pay back nearly $19,000 in restitution to the insurance company. He was detained by ICE and put into deportation proceedings.

Michael DiGiacomo, owner of Platinum Construction, which employed Dominguez, was surprised to hear what had become of him. DiGiacomo said Dominguez was a reliable worker, and he didn't know his documents were fake. After Dominguez got hurt, he said, his injury was in the hands of the leasing company and their insurer.

"It really sucks for him because, you know, you come and you want to work; it sucks to have to deal with that after you got hurt," he said. "They should have at least paid for his medical bills since he was hurt on the job."

Dominguez's attorney has argued for a judge to cancel his deportation because of the harmful effect it would have on his U.S.-born son. His attorney is hopeful he will get a visa to stay.

Even if he does, the insurance company scored a victory — it got Dominguez and his medical costs to go away. "I didn't want to do any more of anything," he said of his physical therapy. "I didn't want to claim anything else. I just wanted to live with it because I knew that it would only bring me more problems."

Arias' attorney Brian Carter said what the state and insurance companies are doing amounts to entrapment and ethnic profiling.

"Nobody looks at whether or not the Social Security number is valid for an individual named Tom Smith," he said. "The insurance companies are using this little issue over a Social Security number to avoid any financial responsibility, and in my opinion, ethical responsibility to take care of these individuals."

In the end, turning in Arias didn't get the insurer off the hook. Because the state attorney offered a plea deal, Normandy would have had to convince a workers' comp judge that Arias had not only used a fake Social Security number but that he had done so to obtain benefits. If it couldn't, it would have had to pay for medical treatment and lost wages potentially totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, Carter said. So with Arias in Honduras, Normandy offered $49,000 plus attorney's fees.

Sent back to a country he hadn't lived in for 15 years, Arias felt he had no choice but to take the offer. "I arrived empty-handed," he said. "I didn't have means to put a roof over my head or feed myself or buy medications."

Despite having the settlement money, Arias said he doesn't trust the doctors in Honduras to perform a delicate back surgery. "Here, they're more likely to send you to the cemetery," he said. He hopes the United States might allow him to re-enter for humanitarian reasons, just to let him get the operation — and perhaps see his kids.

Research contributed by Meg Anderson and Graham Bishai of NPR and Sarah Betancourt of ProPublica.

Do you have information about how immigrant workers are being treated in the age of Trump? Contact Michael at michael.grabell@propublica.org.

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