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Studies show the 8 million workers in the U.S. illegally are doing some of the most dangerous jobs. They face high rates of injury and death. States such as Florida give undocumented immigrants the right to workers' compensation when they're injured on the job. But an NPR and ProPublica investigation found dozens of cases of undocumented workers being arrested, prosecuted and even deported. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: In a cramped kitchen in Fellsmere, Fla...
(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER WHIRRING)
BERKES: ...Thirty-two-year-old Yuliana Rocha uses a mixer churn waffle batter in a bowl. She was doing something similar seven years ago, preparing breakfast for her little boy, who was 4 then and watching cartoons.
YULIANA ROCHA: (Through interpreter) All of a sudden, I hear a knock at the door, and I got scared because they were officers. One officer pushed me, and two or three officers entered. They came in the house and checked the rooms, the kitchen, everything. I just stood there, saying, what is happening? Why are you searching my house?
BERKES: The agents included a state insurance detective. Rocha tried to comfort her son.
ROCHA: (Through interpreter) He saw everything, and he was crying. He was saying to me, Mommy, why are there police in the house, Mommy? And he just hugged me and cried. I asked the officer, why are you arresting me? And he told me that it was because I asked for workers' compensation.
BERKES: Eight months before, Rocha slipped and banged her knee hard on a bathtub while working at a locally owned Comfort Suites in Vero Beach. She suffered contusions and pain so bad she couldn't walk or stand. But instead of getting ongoing workers' compensation benefits, Rocha was charged with felony workers' comp fraud even though her injury was legitimate. She was shuffled for months from county to immigration jails, worried about her three children.
ROCHA: (Through interpreter) I was away from my children for a year. I didn't see them. I only spoke with them.
BERKES: Once she was jailed, according to court documents, the sexual assaults began at home. Rocha's 10-year-old daughter was raped repeatedly by her father, who was convicted and imprisoned for life. Rocha believes the nightmare her daughter endures wouldn't have happened if she'd been home to protect her.
ROCHA: (Through interpreter) She's afraid to go out, to speak with people. She always stays glued to my side. She doesn't want to sleep alone in her room. It's hard, and it's sad. But I pray often to God that he give me the strength to be able to move my daughter forward.
BERKES: Rocha herself was just 13 when her mother snuck her across the Mexican border. She was 17 when her father gave her an elicit Social Security number. She needed it to get a job in this country like all undocumented immigrants. Eight years later, that number prompted her arrest. It hadn't been checked thoroughly by any employer until she needed workers' compensation.
BRIAN CARTER: And it looks good when they allege that these people are trying to defraud the system when they're not defrauding the system.
BERKES: Brian Carter is a workers' comp attorney in Pensacola, Fla.
CARTER: The question of them being in the country undocumented is a different question. This focus is whether they're entitled to those benefits. And they are by law.
BERKES: In Florida and most states, the law and court decisions are consistent. Undocumented workers qualify for workers' compensation benefits. That's fundamental, says David Michaels, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now at George Washington University.
DAVID MICHAELS: If you allow a class of workers who can be injured without any repercussions against the employer, then there's no reason for the employer to keep all workers safe. So that employer is likely to hire more undocumented workers and invest little or nothing in safety. The result - even more workers will be injured.
BERKES: Still, a growing number of states have considered ending workers' comp for undocumented workers. An investigation by NPR and ProPublica found it's already happening in Florida indirectly. There, undocumented workers face criminal charges and even deportation after legitimate injuries at work.
We found 130 cases in state and court records in the last 14 years. And get this. Five-hundred-sixty-five more were charged with workers' comp fraud even though they didn't file workers' comp claims. These cases hinge on a 2003 change in state workers' comp law. It banned the use of illicit Social Security numbers in workers' comp claims or in simply getting jobs.
JIMMY BENINCASA: There's two purposes really that this statute serves for the state of Florida.
BERKES: Jimmy Benincasa is Yuliana Rocha's immigration attorney.
BENINCASA: One is to protect employers' profits by reducing claims and put money back in the pockets of the insurance companies and employers. But the real intent behind what they're doing is to regulate immigration because they don't feel the federal government's doing enough.
BERKES: The state agency involved says immigration has nothing to do with its aggressive enforcement. Simon Blank directs Florida's insurance fraud unit.
SIMON BLANK: The statute is not meant to go after illegal people. The statute is meant to go against anyone who uses fictitious personal information. And the concern is that there's always somebody that's being impacted by it.
BERKES: Blank says the Social Security numbers might be used for identity theft, credit fraud, avoiding liens or hiding assets. And the law requires employers, insurance companies and his agency to respond.
BLANK: I think you're looking at it from the immigration point of view. There's quite a lot of other circumstances why people use fake names and IDs and Social Security numbers. It's not always an immigration issue.
BERKES: But it mostly is by far. State records analyzed by NPR and ProPublica show nearly 800 cases investigated under this law. Almost all involve undocumented immigrants with Hispanic surnames. Only six cases do not - just six. Even the state agency's annual report says close to a hundred percent of the workers investigated are undocumented. At least a quarter of the injured workers charged were either placed on immigration holds or deported.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
BERKES: In an NPR studio in Washington, our producer reaches a cellphone in a remote mountain town in Honduras with sketchy cell service.
NIXON ARIAS: Hello.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hola, Nixon.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish)?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
BERKES: It took 40 minutes to get through, and the signal was faint. But we finally had Nixon Arias on the line.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
BERKES: For more than a decade, Arias worked in the United States illegally, mostly at the same landscaping company in Pensacola. He was the foreman five years ago when the riding mower he drove hit a hole and jerked him violently. His doctor later recommended an expensive spinal procedure. And six days after that, his employer's workers' comp insurance company suddenly decided to investigate. Arias was eventually arrested, jailed and deported, leaving three sons behind, all American citizens.
ARIAS: (Through interpreter) I was arrested around the time that it was supposed to go into surgery. They gave me some light pain killers while I was in jail. I'd asked for stronger ones, but they didn't allow higher dosages. I started to think about dying there. God forgive me. I even tried to take my own life. I felt worthless.
BERKES: Court records show that Arias didn't actually put his illicit Social Security number on his workers' comp forms. The employer and insurer did that. This is important because Social Security numbers are not required for workers' comp claims in Florida. In fact, the state provides substitute numbers if asked. Workers can be trapped, says attorney Brian Carter, who represents Nixon Arias.
CARTER: If an undocumented worker's entitled to workers' compensation benefits but the only way they get the job is through the use of a false Social Security number and the employer or an insurance company provides that false Social Security number to the doctors for medical treatment, it's automatically set up to capture the individual and the alleged misuse of that number.
BERKES: Undocumented workers need Social Security numbers to get jobs, so Carter wonders why some employers don't thoroughly check those numbers before workers' comp claims are filed. That's what we wanted to ask Florida-based John Porreca, whose employee leasing firm and insurance companies turned in Yuliana Rocha and a third of the injured undocumented workers snared by this law according to public records.
Porreca declined multiple requests for interviews. His attorney wrote that the companies strictly adhere to state and federal law. And it appears that they do. Bram Gechtman is a Miami workers' comp attorney with cases involving Porreca's companies.
BRAM GECHTMAN: We were a bit dumbfounded how a company was able to allow these people that had invalid Social Security numbers work for weeks, months, if not years. But as soon as an injury occurred, they're able to identify that it was then invalid and therefore against the law. It was being used to commit a fraudulent act.
BERKES: Public records show that another company, a private investigation firm, reported 75 percent of the injured undocumented workers prosecuted under this law since 2013. Command Investigations has a wall of shame on its website showing booking photos of dozens of these workers, including Nixon Arias. Command's CEO, Steve Cassell, also declined to be interviewed. Simon Blank of the state insurance fraud unit says he's sympathetic with undocumented workers who suffer under his agency's enforcement.
BLANK: And I think that any person that has a family, has kids would feel for them, too. You know, the question is still, is this causing more harm than good - I guess is one that should be taken up by the legislature and other bodies.
BERKES: Actually, it was Blank's agency that sought this authority according to a state senate report, arguing that undocumented immigrants conspire with unethical lawyers and doctors to bilk the workers' comp system. But neither Blank nor his agency could provide a single example of an actual case. All of this baffles Nixon Arias, who struggled in jail to make sense of his predicament.
ARIAS: (Through interpreter) I was always asking, why? What's the reason I'm here? I haven't stolen anything. I haven't killed anyone. I haven't done anything.
BERKES: Arias hasn't seen his sons in two years. He still suffers pain and needs surgery. Yuliana Rocha says she's still in pain.
ROCHA: (Through interpreter) I think it's an injustice what happened to me all because I fell. I slipped. All of this didn't have to happen. And because of this, because I was in jail, because of this injustice, my daughter suffered so much.
BERKES: And because her daughter was raped and because her daughter is an American citizen and because her daughter is a minor and needs her mother's support, Rocha's attorney was able to get her a green card. She has a real Social Security number now and legally works, washing dishes in a Florida restaurant. Most aren't so lucky - if you can call that luck. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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