Little-Known Law Lets Immigrants Sue : Some Illegal Workers Can Get Amnesty, Protection From Racial Bias

Times Staff Writer

Noemi Romo's eyes still fill with tears when she remembers the day last April when her boss at a uniform sales firm in the City of Industry called her into his office and told her that since she had no immigrant work permit, she would have to leave. Romo, 25, was pregnant with her first child at the time and needed the money.

She was fired, even though the federal immigration reform law does not require that workers like Romo, hired before the law's enactment in November, 1986, provide such documentation. Romo, who is now working part-time, has since filed her amnesty application under the law and gained work authorization.

She has also filed discrimination charges against her employer.

Little-Known Provision

Romo is one of 54 individuals throughout the country who have filed such charges, under a little-known provision of the law that offers amnesty to some illegal immigrants while setting penalties for employers who hire illegal workers. The anti-discrimination provision provides remedies for workers or job applicants who are discriminated against on the basis of national origin or citizenship.

The number of claimants is smaller than originally projected by immigrants' advocates who lobbied for the protective provision, predicting that the law would unleash widespread discrimination against lawful immigrants as well as ethnic Americans. But federal officials contend that it is still too early in the program to discount the possibility of larger numbers as employer sanctions become more widely enforced.

Immigrants' advocates charge that the numbers are small because the government has done little to publicize the legal remedies available under the complex provision of the law. And battles over interpretation of the provision are already brewing, with critics contending that the government is being overly restrictive.

No Charges Filed

In Romo's case, for instance, the Justice Department office created to enforce the anti-discrimination provision--the Office of the Special Counsel for immigration-related employment practices--declined to file charges.

Expressing sympathy for Romo and others who may "fall through the cracks," Special Counsel Lawrence Siskind nonetheless said: "We're limited in this office by what Congress mandated. . . . It's up to Congress to plug those cracks."

Among numerous legal restrictions he cited in a telephone interview, Siskind listed one that excludes amnesty applicants from among those who may file discrimination charges. He said the law provides protection for temporary and permanent U.S. residents, refugees and those seeking political asylum--and then only if they have signed a declaration of intention to become U.S. citizens before the time of the alleged discrimination. Declaration forms have been distributed to community agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies, he noted.

17 Cases Filed

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has filed 17 discrimination cases, including Romo's, contends that the special counsel's office is being overly restrictive in its interpretation of Congress' intent.

"Our contention is that the law was intended to protect legalization applicants," said John Nockleby of MALDEF. "The special counsel's office has erected a technical means of denying some individuals the opportunity to even have their cases heard."

In an effort to expand the law's interpretation, MALDEF attorneys announced at a press conference Friday in Los Angeles that the organization has filed Romo's discrimination complaint directly with an administrative law judge, since the special counsel's office declined to do so. If denied at that level, Nockleby said, the civil rights group will appeal the issue to federal courts.

Other complaints filed with the special counsel's office have come from other legalization candidates as well as from permanent residents and U.S. citizens alleging discrimination because of their ethnic backgrounds, an office spokeswoman said.

Avenues of Recourse

Possible remedies provided under the law include reinstatement, back pay and civil penalties against employers.

Other cases filed by MALDEF include that of Jorge Ruiz Lopez, a permanent U.S. resident for the last 10 years who works as an accountant.

Unlike the tearful Romo, Ruiz gets angry when he recalls answering a newspaper ad from an insurance firm in Lancaster and being told that he need not apply since he is not a U.S. citizen.

"They guy told me that it was company policy," Ruiz recalled. "I told him I'd see him in court."

"I thank God I have legal status and an education," he said at the press conference, adding that he decided to contest the issue in part to encourage others who may be afraid to fight or may not even know where to go for help.

MALDEF attorneys announced that the agency planned to step up its efforts to use the anti-discrimination provisions by pursuing all discrimination complaints that are presented to it and by holding seminars on the provision for employers.

Nockleby said that many employers have overreacted by firing workers because of fear of the law's employer sanctions, and that they are not familiar with the law's anti-discrimination provisions, which, he charged, "have not been effectively publicized by INS or the special counsel."

And, Nockleby said, "too many workers don't know their rights and are accepting whatever befalls them."

Siskind said that information about the provision has been distributed to community groups and federal agencies. The provision is mentioned in INS handbooks on the new law distributed to millions of employers and will be mentioned in a new handbook about to be published for employees. Additionally, the special counsel's office has presented dozens of seminars throughout the country to groups assisting immigrants through the legalization process, including labor, legal and public interest organizations, he said.

Still, Siskind concedes that "there is some merit" to the charge that insufficient information has reached the public about the anti-discrimination provision. "But that's not the full story," he said.

"Even if every person in the universe knew this law backward and forward, there would still be a limited number who could qualify under the restrictions that Congress enacted. Congress didn't intend to protect everyone under this provision."

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