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How Undocumented Status Impacts the Working Conditions and Safety of Latino Immigrants

September 15, 2015 (5 min read)

By Roger Rabb, J.D., Special Correspondent for the LexisNexis Workers’ Compensation eNewsletter

Although the debate over undocumented immigrants and immigration reform is constantly in the headlines, one area that receives less attention is the working conditions for those undocumented immigrants already employed in the U.S. While earlier research has shown that immigrant workers suffer a disproportionately high rate of work-related fatalities, the researchers in “Undocumented Status as a Social Determinant of Occupational Safety And Health: The Workers’ Perspective” to be published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, examine how the social status of being an undocumented immigrant affects the working conditions and safety of Latino immigrants who comprise more than 75 percent of the unauthorized workers in the U.S.

The study sought to prove two hypotheses: first, that documentation status would be a major factor impacting the occupational health and safety of Latino immigrant workers, and second, that when attempting to reduce “discorrespondence” with their work environments—the difference between what a worker wants from a job and what the job actually offers—these workers would tend to use reactive rather than active coping strategies. An active coping strategy would be one in which the worker attempts to get the work to change to better meet the worker’s expectations, while a reactive strategy would be one in which the worker attempts personal change, either of work performance or expectations of work, in order to reduce the discorrespondence. For their analysis, the researchers interviewed over 100 undocumented Latinos in two cities: Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city traditionally high in immigrant Latinos; and Cincinnati, Ohio, a city with a much newer influx of Latino immigrants.

Major Themes Identified

The researchers identified four major themes from the responses of their participants:

  • Overworked: The Latino immigrants felt pressured to “kill yourself to make a living,” stemming in part from the desire to hold their job in the face of a competitive job market and from the desire to make money for their families and often to repay the smugglers who got them into the country. This tendency to over-work sets up unrealistic and unsustainable expectations and leads to fatigue and injury. Once a certain level of work is demonstrated, however, workers find it hard to back off of this pace for fear of being replaced by another immigrant eager for the job, even when the worker realizes that the work pace is unsustainable.
  • Fear of being reported to authorities: Some immigrants choose not to report unsafe work conditions for fear of being reported to the authorities and deported, although it was more common for workers to just accept unsafe workplace conditions without complaint for other reasons.
  • Fear of losing job: Fear of losing their job motivated many workers to accept unsatisfactory and unsafe working conditions without complaining. Although this is a recognized motivation for non-immigrants as well, the interviewees reported concern that crackdowns on hiring undocumented immigrants would make it harder for them to obtain new employment, making it even less likely that they would complain about working conditions. Additionally, knowing that they were ineligible for unemployment insurance and other government benefits due to their undocumented status made the price of losing a job even greater than it would be for others.
  • Unclear about employment rights: In general, the lack of entitlement to some resources available to others, such as unemployment insurance, often led to the perception among the undocumented immigrants that they were ineligible for all rights and privileges, or at least led to confusion about the extent of their rights, a confusion that was exacerbated by the fact that these rights could vary by jurisdiction. In addition to perceptions about rights, undocumented status could also lead, for example, to foregoing medical care for work injuries when the worker’s name being used at work does not match the name on their identification card. They described as well a general distrust of authority and avoidance of social and legal institutions, leading to a reluctance to take advantage of those resources that might otherwise be available.

From these responses, the study concluded that their two hypotheses had been confirmed. For the first hypothesis, the researchers noted that although the immigrants’ status as undocumented was not a topic that was brought up by the interviewers, so many comments were made by the immigrants concerning the effect this had on their work environment that this status was “the context within which all other study findings must be conceptualized.” In accepting the second hypothesis as proven true, the researchers noted that all of the coping strategies described by the immigrants, such as overworking and accepting unsafe work conditions, were reactive in nature. Only rarely did an immigrant describe an attempt to take an active stance and attempt to change the workplace, and in those instances, support was provided by a community-based advocacy group.


From these interviews, the researchers suggest that political efforts to restrict undocumented immigration has an unintended adverse impact that goes beyond that stated goal, leaving undocumented workers currently employed in the country “feeling trapped in their current jobs” and more resigned to accept unsafe working conditions, thereby creating “additional barriers to safety and health.” Moreover, the researchers posit that undocumented status among the Latinos seems to lead to “a degree of alienation and marginalization” that fuels a coping strategy of “strategic disengagement” with all social and political institutions. While this disengagement might sometimes be an effective coping mechanism, in this context they note that it prevents undocumented Latinos from accessing resources, such as workers’ compensation and emergency medical care, to which they might be entitled and may “contribute to the disparities in occupational health outcomes for immigrant workers.” The researchers caution that current political attempts for immigration reform should take into consideration and attempt to mitigate the negative effect on worker health and safety those efforts can have on immigrant workers already in the country.

The researchers also note that workplace efforts to address safety concerns among these vulnerable populations, which often focus on providing more safety materials to workers or motivating workers to implement further safety procedures, should also provide the tools to empower these workers to take a more active stance in addressing workplace safety concerns, which might include training in negotiation skills or strategies for collective action. As the researchers note, “interventions that directly address the dynamic of disengagement, inform workers of their rights and exclusions associated with undocumented status and provide them institutional support such as legal counsel might better enable them to selectively engage the legal and healthcare systems.”

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