Two years ago, an American named Victor Guerrero applied for a job as a prison guard with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
He passed a written and physical examination, then submitted to a background check. It asked whether the applicant had ever used a Social Security number "other than the one you used on this questionnaire.” Guerrero, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States at age 11, truthfully answered "yes."
At age 15, he explained, he took a job in a restaurant using a Social Security number that didn't belong to him. Guerrero says he used it for about seven years, until he became a legal permanent resident of the United States in 2007. He became a citizen in 2010.
Guerrero was denied the job. In a letter, the corrections department said his use of another person's identification number “shows a lack of honesty, integrity, and good judgment.” Guerrero, who lives with his wife and three children in Stockton, applied for the job again this year and was denied on the same grounds.
On Monday, Guerrero filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the State Personnel Board, which upheld the corrections department's decision to deny him the job.
He claims the prison system's policy violates fair employment laws and unfairly hurts Latino job applicants.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Immigrant rights activists say the case could have implications for a wide variety of workers, especially young, undocumented immigrants who are eligible for a federal program that lets them stay in the country for at least two years and work legally.
Krsna Avila, legal services manager for Educators for Fair Consideration, an organization that helps undocumented immigrant youths access education and apply for citizenship, said denying Guerrero a job as a prison guard sets a bad precedent. Young immigrants who come here with their families aren't choosing to break the law, he said.
"They're given these numbers by their parents often without their knowledge," he said.
That is what Guerrero says happened to him. He said he didn't find out that he lacked permission to work in the United States and that he was using someone else's Social Security number until he was 17.
From that point on, he said, he paid all required taxes by using a Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which is issued by the Internal Revenue Service to people who are not eligible for a Social Security number for tax reporting purposes.
His attorney, Marsha Chien, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, said her organization decided to take up Guerrero's case because it frequently hears from previously undocumented immigrants who have achieved lawful status but who are afraid to the tell their employers for fear of retribution.
"It's almost dissuading people from coming out of the shadows," Chien said.
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