Balancing rights with immigration laws

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

While some immigrant-rights groups contend illegal aliens are entitled to all the basic human rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled -- in a split 5-4 decision along ideological lines -- that illegal workers do not have the same rights as U.S. citizens who are mistreated on the job.

The case at hand involved an illegal immigrant who used false documentation to obtain a job at a plant in California. When the worker and three others supported union-organization efforts at the plant, they were laid off. The worker sued, claiming he was entitled to back pay of $67,000.

The high court has ruled in other cases that undocumented workers are protected by federal labor laws. And since 1995 the National Labor Relations Board has been allowing illegal aliens who are mistreated on the job to collect back pay. In addition, the NLRB has attempted to ensure that workers are not punished for union activities or for protesting work conditions.

Without the ability to force employers to pay back wages and penalties, there is no way to force them to abide by U.S. labor laws, according to human-rights groups. Even the Bush administration argued that, without sanctions, the estimated 7 million undocumented workers in the United States might be exploited. And six states with high immigration populations -- Arizona, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and West Virginia -- along with Puerto Rico argued that punishments are needed to protect workers.

But even though the court has said undocumented workers are protected by labor laws, it said this didn't entitle them to back pay "for wages that could not lawfully have been earned and for a job obtained in the first instance by criminal fraud."

It is difficult to balance benefits to illegal aliens on the one hand while trying to uphold immigration laws on the other. There are plenty of other inconsistencies. For example, the government funds special education needs for immigrant children who don't speak English -- keeping in mind that children born in the United States of illegal-alien parents are U.S. citizens. Voting rights have been extended to countless illegal aliens through the so-called Motor Voter Law that encourages anyone obtaining a driver's license or applying for welfare to register to vote with little or no documentation.

In the case just decided, the Supreme Court has logically decided that illegal aliens can't use the system to win benefits while abusing that same system's immigration laws. Those worried about the exploitation of illegal workers need only remember that employers who hire undocumented laborers are still subject to stiff penalties.

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