Hospital's decision to report illegal immigrant questioned


Published: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 9:46 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 9:46 a.m.

CARROLLTON, Texas Maria Martinez' attempt to land a cafeteria job at a suburban Dallas hospital got her arrested, jailed and deported.

She did use a counterfeit social security on her application to Trinity Medical Center, but her relatives and supporters wonder whether the hospital overreacted by calling the police.

During yet another year marked by several high profile immigration raids targeting both undocumented workers and the companies who hire them, the Martinez case raises questions about what employers can or should do if they discover an applicant is not authorized to work legally in the U.S.

A spokeswoman for the medical center here contends the hospital was simply following policy and has a responsibility to report criminal activity, including possible identity theft.

It may be hospital policy, but employers aren't required to report a worker or applicant suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, say immigration attorneys and enforcement officials.

"For an employer to go ahead and take it upon themselves ... to report that is unusual," said immigration attorney Kathleen Walker. "There's no obligation on my part to go call law enforcement."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Carl Rusnok agreed, saying employers and local police typically don't have the training needed to determine whether someone is in the country illegally.

Carrollton's mayor has emphasized that one of his priorities is to rid the city of illegal immigrants. The neighboring suburb of Farmers Branch has unsuccessfully tried to prohibit landlords from renting houses and apartments to tenants who cannot prove they are in the U.S. legally.

But hospital spokeswoman Susan Watson said the decision to report Martinez had nothing to do with the immigration debate in suburban Dallas. The hospital reported what it considered a crime, she said.

"Regardless of whether they were an illegal alien, legal immigrant or an American citizen, it still wouldn't have mattered. They still would have been reported," she said.

Watson said it was the first time in at least two years that the hospital reported a possible crime involving a worker or applicant to police. But officials are always on alert because many employees have access to patients' medical records and other private information, she said.

Immigration attorneys and advocates are concerned that many employers have become overly cautious, to the point that they might be bending or breaking the law.

"When people are being prescreened before a decision to hire is being made, then you could have exposure to discrimination charges," said Walker, an El Paso lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Recent workplace raids around the country have increasingly led to prosecuting unauthorized workers for identity theft and use of someone else's social security number. But those prosecutions have stemmed from federal investigations into workers at specific companies, not calls from an employer to local police.

Still, such raids have left employers edgy, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law.

"I think employers are beginning to feel the pinch and in many cases I think they are trying not only to be sort of extra cautious but ... to be pre-emptive," said Chishti. "What's troubling is that employers have taken it upon themselves the job of ascertaining whether a crime has been committed."

Martinez, a single mother of a 3-year-old son and a teenage daughter, acknowledged buying the social security card for $110 at a Wal-Mart., according to police records. She also had a second social security card and two counterfeit cards stating she was a legal permanent resident.

She had planned to fight the state charge, but after being held in jail for nearly three weeks, she agreed to be deported to Mexico. Her son joined her there.

"She told me to please forgive her," said Martinez' 19-year-old daughter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she also is in the U.S. illegally. "She told me she wasn't strong enough to fight."

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