How insurance companies use a Florida law to get undocumented immigrants arrested and deported when they get injured on the job — and what it means in Trump’s America
by Michael Grabell, ProPublica, and Howard Berkes, NPR
At age 31, Nixon Arias cut a profile similar to many unauthorized immigrants in the United States. A native of Honduras, he’d been in the country for more than a decade and had worked off and on for a landscaping company for nine years. The money he earned went to building a future for his family in Pensacola, Florida. His Facebook page was filled with photos of fishing and other moments with his three boys, ages 3, 7 and 8.
But in November 2013, that life began to unravel.
The previous year, Arias had been mowing the median of Highway 59 just over the Alabama line when his riding lawnmower hit a hole, throwing him into the air. He slammed back in his seat, landing hard on his lower back.
Arias received pain medication, physical therapy and steroid injections through his employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. But the pain in his back made even walking or sitting a struggle. So his doctor recommended an expensive surgery to implant a device that sends electrical pulses to the spinal cord to relieve chronic pain. Six days after that appointment, the insurance company suddenly discovered that Arias had been using a deceased man’s Social Security number and rejected not only the surgery, but all of his past and future care.
Desperate, Arias hired an attorney to help him pursue the injury benefits that Florida law says all employees, including unauthorized immigrants, are entitled to receive. Then one morning after he dropped two of his boys off at school, Arias was pulled over and arrested, while his toddler watched from his car seat.
Arias was charged with using a false Social Security number to get a job and to file for workers’ comp. The state insurance fraud unit had been tipped off by a private investigator hired by his employer’s insurance company.
With his back still in pain from three herniated or damaged discs, Arias spent a year and a half in jail and immigration detention before he was deported.
One of SouthEast’s first cases involved a hotel housekeeper at the Comfort Suites in Vero Beach. Yuliana Rocha Zamarripa was cleaning a hotel room in 2010 when she slipped on a bathroom floor and slammed her knee on the bathtub, leaving her with pain and swelling so severe she was unable to walk.
Lion sent her to a doctor, but quickly denied her claim based on a false Social Security number.
Rocha’s mother had brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 13, and when she turned 17, her father bought her the fake ID so she could work.
With few options, Rocha, now 32, settled her workers’ comp case for less than $6,000 plus attorney fees. But she never got the medical care she needed. The week before she was to receive the check, she was arrested while making breakfast for her 4-year-old son.
Rocha spent the next year cycling through jail and immigration detention, separated from her three children. She couldn’t sleep, worrying what would happen to them if she were deported.
“I said the Lord’s Prayer all the time, and I would end by asking, ‘God, give me a chance to return to my children. Don’t let anything bad happen to them,’” she said. “I had a feeling that something was not right.”
Rocha’s instincts were correct. While she was in jail, the father of her children started sexually assaulting their 10-year-old daughter, according to his arrest warrant. “I was left shattered,” Rocha said tearfully, “because I didn’t know what was happening.”
With the help of an attorney, Rocha pleaded to a lesser charge — “perjury not in an official proceeding” — and was finally released. Because of what happened to Rocha’s daughter, the attorney was able to get Rocha’s deportation canceled and help her obtain a green card.
Rocha eventually received her settlement but had to spend all of it securing her release and dealing with immigration. She now walks with a limp because her injury didn’t heal correctly.
“I think it’s an injustice what happened to me,” she said. “All because I fell, I slipped.”
However people feel about immigration, judges and lawmakers nationwide have long acknowledged that the employment of unauthorized workers is a reality of the American economy. From nailing shingles on roofs to cleaning hotel rooms, some 8 million immigrants work with false or no papers nationwide, and studies show they’re more likely to get hurt or killed on the job than other workers. So over the years, nearly all 50 states, including Florida, have given these workers the right to receive workers’ comp.
But in 2003, Florida’s lawmakers added a catch, making it a crime to file a workers’ comp claim using false identification. Since then, insurers have avoided paying for injured immigrant workers’ lost wages and medical care by repeatedly turning them in to the state.
Workers like Arias have been charged with felony workers’ comp fraud even though their injuries are real and happened on the job. And in a challenging twist of logic, immigrants can be charged with workers’ comp fraud even if they’ve never been injured or filed a claim because legislators also made it illegal to use a fake ID to get a job. In many cases, the state’s insurance fraud unit has conducted unusual sweeps of worksites, arresting a dozen employees for workers’ comp fraud after merely checking their Social Security numbers.
What’s quietly been happening to workers in Florida, unnoticed even by immigrant advocates, could be a harbinger of the future as immigration enforcement expands under President Donald Trump.
One of Trump’s first executive orders broadened Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s priorities to include not just those convicted of or charged with a crime, but any immigrant suspected of one. The order also targets anyone who has “engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency.” That language could sweep in countless injured unauthorized workers because state workers’ comp bureaus and medical facilities typically request Social Security numbers as part of the claims process.
(This story was shorten to fit space).