Today the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee held a final hearing on S.B. 238, a bill that prohibits undocumented foreign nationals from receiving workers compensation benefits. The proposal is the brain child of Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and squarely aimed at Ohio’s most vulnerable population; undocumented immigrants. But, S.B. 238 is an unnecessary and mean spirited bill which will do nothing to fix the broken immigration system which plagues Ohio and the rest of the nation. In fact, if it becomes law, it will make things worse.
To start with, it appears that neither Senator Seitz nor his co-sponsors did their homework before introducing S.B. 238. No one knows how many unauthorized foreign workers have recovered workers compensation in Ohio and, therefore, whether such legislation is even necessary. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that only 1.1% of Ohio’s workforce is undocumented, making it highly unlikely that there is even much of a problem that needs fixing. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have first commissioned a study to determine whether a problem exits?
How would S.B. 238 work in practice? Under the immigration law an employer is not required to test the authenticity of employment authorization documents and can accept them from an employee as long as they are not obviously fake. Thus, under S.B. 238 an employer could conveniently look the other way when hiring an unauthorized immigrant and “learn” of his unauthorized status only after the employee is injured on the job. S.B. 238 then burdens the employee with the daunting task of proving in a court of law that the employer knew he or she was an unauthorized immigrant when she was employed. The law essentially rewards employers for suddenly “discovering” that a worker is unauthorized after a catastrophic injury.
Or suppose an undocumented employee is the victim of an unscrupulous employer who hired her knowing she was unauthorized to work, paid her sweat shop wages, and placed her in an unsafe work environment where she was badly injured. Under these circumstances S.B. 238 permits her to sue her employer, but includes a strong disincentive to do so. Does anyone really expect an undocumented immigrant to file a lawsuit against her unscrupulous employer under the threat of removal from the U.S.? True, she may have no legal right to be here, but her undocumented status doesn’t justify creating a legal structure which effectively encourages her abuse.
What’s more, echoing the recently enacted anti-immigration law in Arizona, S.B. 238 arguably runs afoul of the federal immigration statute which provides for the protection of victims of human trafficking, violent crime, and domestic violence. Many such victims have entered the country illegally but are nevertheless entitled to protection under the law, including the right to work in the US. But S.B. 238 prohibits such victims from receiving workers compensation by excluding them from coverage as “illegal aliens”.
Nor is it clear that S.B. 238 will save Ohio taxpayers money as a result of reduced workers compensation insurance premiums. The bill creates a burden on the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation and will likely generate other costs that will more than offset any savings in reduced workers compensation premiums.
Ohio and the rest of the nation need a functional, orderly, and fair immigration system designed to meet the needs of American business and families. Bills like S.B. 238 do nothing of the sort. They merely create a climate of fear designed to intimidate a vulnerable population. Unfortunately, Washington’s failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform has left a void which cynical politicians are all too willing to fill. Their actions are an appalling symptom of a broken immigration system. As responsible citizens we must demand that the Obama Administration and Congress get to the hard work of enacting comprehensive immigration reform.
In the meantime we deserve better from state and local government.