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CA Bill Protects Immigrants Making Employment Claims
Attorneys would be subject to discipline, including possible disbarment, for threatening to report the immigration status of a worker considering an employment claim, under terms of fast-moving state legislation that passed a key policy committee on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 666 would also impose sanctions on attorneys who threaten to expose the undocumented status of employees' relatives in an attempt to stop the workers from filing or testifying in an employment matter.
The disciplinary provisions are included in a two-bill package aimed at bolstering legal protections for California's large workforce of foreign temporary workers, estimated at 130,000. Their ranks are expected to swell as Silicon Valley leaders pursue federal legislation that would increase the number of temporary visas granted to skilled tech workers.
"An employer or attorney's threat to alert immigration or law enforcement of an undocumented immigrant or their family is an enormous force against justice," the bills' author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee approved the legislation Tuesday.
"It silences the worker and the entire workplace," Steinberg wrote. "And, it gives a law-breaking business strong incentive to run a shop that falls far short of respecting California's employment laws."
SB 666 and SB 516, backed by immigrant support groups and organized labor, have sailed through two legislative committees in less than a week with bipartisan support. The Chamber of Commerce removed its original opposition after Steinberg assured business leaders that companies would still be able to cooperate with immigration authorities in a nonretaliatory setting.
Lawyers can already be disciplined by the State Bar for acts of dishonesty or "moral turpitude." The new language, supporters said, will give immigrant workers the protection they need to file a complaint against an unscrupulous attorney.
"Unfortunately most of our clients now are too scared of retaliation that they don't want to pursue that kind of report against an attorney," said Stephanie Richard, an attorney with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. "We have this system in place that does protect workers but what happens is this fear of deportation, the threats, the false promises of labor recruiters, are making workers too vulnerable."
The State Bar has not taken a position on the bill, and a handful of immigration attorneys contacted by The Recorder said they were not aware of Steinberg's proposals, noting that Congress is typically the focus of immigration-related legislation.
The package of state bills would also require all foreign labor contractors to register in California and to provide an agent who can accept service of summons in any legal action. The legislation would also make retaliating employers liable for civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation and specify that harmed workers have a private right of action.
This article originally appeared in The Recorder.