- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

The Clinton administration is stepping up efforts to protect illegal-immigrant workers from discrimination and harassment by employers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week reached a settlement on behalf of nine Mexican employees of a Minneapolis Holiday Inn Express who claimed their employer exploited them because they were in the country illegally.

The settlement came in a lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of the workers. It was the first case in which the EEOC has sided with illegal immigrants who claimed discrimination by an employer.

EEOC officials said cases of employers exploiting illegal-immigrant workers are becoming more common and they are trying to stop the trend.

The nine workers, all housekeepers who said they were forced to work long hours and denied raises, will share a $72,000 settlement. But now they face deportation proceedings since their employer reported their status to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We believe there is a problem out there, and if we tolerate any discrimination against these workers, we are undercutting the rights of all workers," said Ellen Vargas, an EEOC lawyer.

Signaling the new administration effort, the commission in October issued a "clarification" intended to remind both employers and employees that all workers, including illegal immigrants, are protected against discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But advocates for tightening immigration in the United States said the Clinton administration's push to protect illegal workers has more to do with solidifying the Democrats' core base of labor and minorities.

"This EEOC plan is clearly an extension of the Democratic Party's objective of using immigration issues as a way to take back control of the Congress," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based lobbying group.

"Without the substantial immigration that has taken place in this country since 1985, the Republican Party would have total control over Congress for the next few decades," he added.

But EEOC officials said they were simply trying to enforce existing law, which is intended to protect all workers.

While employment-discrimination cases often call for workers to be reinstated to their jobs, EEOC officials said they do not have the power to reinstate the workers in this instance since the hotel employees were working in the country illegally.

"Unauthorized workers are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation," said EEOC Chairman Ida L. Castro.

"It is imperative for employers to fully understand that discrimination against this class of employees will not be tolerated and that they will be responsible for appropriate remedies if they violate civil rights law," she said.

The hotel workers said that unlike other employees working at the hotel legally, they were forced to work long hours, denied breaks and denied scheduled raises. They decided to fight back and launched a successful drive to form a union.

After casting their votes, in favor of joining the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 17, the hotel management simply fired them and reported their status to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The hotel denied any violations of the law and asserted that the illegal Mexican employees were not treated any differently.

An attorney for the hotel said it "was more economical to settle these unsubstantiated claims than to spend the next year and one-half to two years defending against them."

EEOC lawyers said, however, that they had evidence that showed hotel managers knew at least a year before they called the INS that it was employing illegal-immigrant workers.

"We did not have any problem with the hotel calling the INS because that is the law," said Lloyd Zimmerman," an attorney who represented the workers.

"The problem we had was with the timing. It was clear to us that the hotel was happy to have these workers on the job as long as they weren't complaining about the poor treatment they were getting. These workers were told, 'If you can't do this work faster, then you can just go back the Mexico," Mr. Zimmerman said.

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