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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:01:33 PM CST

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Brianna McClane/MEDILL

Wage theft is one of the main crimes committed against immigrants, legal and illegal.

Exploited immigrants, unaware of labor laws, afraid to fight mistreatment

by Shannon Mehner and Brianna McClane
May 20, 2010

Natasha moved to Chicago from Eastern Europe a year and a half ago with a visa and a vision of what America would be like. But that vision quickly disintegrated.

The nanny job she had secured turned ugly when they stopped paying her on time and started asking her to do things she wasn’t comfortable with.  Finally, feeling as though she had no other options, she quit and started the job search anew.

“[The job] was not working at all,” said Natasha, who requested her real name be withheld.  “But then I had no money and I got desperate because I didn’t want to leave.”

One of her Eastern European friends mentioned a Chicago-area spa owner who was hiring masseuses and provided great perks: a free apartment, a car and a job.  So she decided to give it a try.  But things went downhill, again.

“After a few months he stopped paying me,” she said.  “Then he started threatening my life if I didn’t do what he said.  He would hit me. I was so scared. He told me if I tried to escape he would find me.”

The business only employed Eastern European girls, both legal and illegal. Natasha said he was sexually and physically abusive.

“We weren’t allowed to talk to each other or anyone else,” she said. “We were trapped.”

Natasha was afraid to approach the police—she didn’t know how they would react or whether they could help her. And she was afraid of getting sent back to Europe, even though she still had a valid visa.

Natasha is not alone. Many immigrants, legal and otherwise, are afraid to approach the police or report crimes against them, said Richard Hanus, a Chicago area immigration lawyer.

“It’s a new system, a new society, and in addition to being intimidated and overwhelmed, there’s a shame that also comes with being victimized,” he said.  “You don’t want to admit to yourself or people in your community that you have been taken.”

It’s especially scary for immigrants when the crime involves their employment, said Dianne Enriquez, worker center network coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice. The national group organizes a network of low-wage worker groups for non-union sectors.

There were about 1.4 million worker-aged immigrants in 2008, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. 

“Every worker is afraid of retribution,” Enriquez said. “Every worker doesn’t want to lose their job.”


With the encouragement of an American friend, Natasha fled her situation and went to the police.  She also persuaded fellow workers to come forward and tell their story. 

Her boss, Alex A. Campbell, and his associate Danielle John allegedly demanded thousands of dollars from a spa worker for help with her immigration papers and threatened her with other punishments if she did not pay more than $30,000 total.      

In the case, U.S. v. Campbell and John, Natasha’s former boss and co-worker face charges of conspiring and attempting to commit extortion, according to a Jan. 13 press release from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Federal prosecutors had no comment on the case. The attorney for Campbell, Hal Garfinkel, was out of town and unable to be reached for comment; John’s attorney, Christina Farley Jackson, was also unable to be reached for comment.

And now that Natasha’s former boss is in prison and awaiting a June 2 hearing, she feels safer.

“It is better now,” Natasha said. “[The police] have helped me a lot.”

They helped her find a safe place to stay, determine her immigration status and feel more secure, she said.

She is waiting to obtain a U-visa, a victim visa for witnesses in criminal cases.
U-visas are not well-known by immigrants but they can safeguard victims wary of approaching the police, Hanus said, and are especially useful in situations when immigrants are nervous about their immigration status.


The fear of seeking help is even greater for illegal immigrants, said Maureen Rowley Barnett, a Chicago psychologist that specializes in immigration issues.  They live in a constant state of anxiety and are often targeted by criminals and other offenders because they won’t approach the police, she said.

“The fear of the price that they would pay is great enough to keep them away from the police and anything to do with the law,” she said.

Hanus agreed.  Though without visas they do not necessarily have the right to stay here, illegal immigrants do have the constitutional rights to safety and property just like any American, he said.

And “police are charged with the responsibility of protecting you no less than protecting a person that is documented,” he said.

Though most situations are not as dramatic as Natasha’s, worker abuse is widespread among immigrants, experts said. 

Wage theft, discrimination and abuse are the main problems seen at Interfaith Worker Justice, Enriquez said.

She has heard stories of employees not allowed to use the restroom or being forced to relieve themselves outside. Construction, restaurant and domestic workers most often face these situations, she said.

Elena, who also didn’t want her real name used, is an illegal immigrant who was taken advantage of in the restaurant and domestic industries.

She is fighting wage theft against two previous employers with the help of ARISE Chicago Worker Center. The organization provided her with the knowledge of her rights that gave her the confidence to fight, she said.

“I didn’t have any fear,” she said. “If they’re going to deport me they will.”

A job at a local restaurant promised her $300 for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The boss began assigning her tasks outside of her job description and refused her pay for six months.

Paid in cash and no paperwork means Elena doesn’t have proof to support her case.

But when she learned about ARISE through English classes she takes at her church, she decided to take action.

“They showed me the rights that corresponded to me,” she said.

While unemployed, Elena worked a few side jobs, including a cleaning job where she encountered another wage theft situation. Her cases are being reviewed by the Department of Labor, a process she calls slow and costly.

She suggests uniting with other coworkers when a case against an employer occurs.

“I think unfortunately Hispanics are fearful and we’re ignorant in terms our rights,” she said. “Hopefully those who’ve been through similar circumstances will share with others the knowledge they’ve acquired so that there is less injustice in the community.”

The majority seeking help at ARISE are immigrants but citizenship status questions aren’t asked.

Anna Karewicz, Polish organizer for ARISE, tells immigrants they shouldn’t acknowledge threats of deportation since employers are often breaking the law themselves.

“Threatening employers with calling immigration is usually just a scare tactic that employers use,” Karewicz said, adding that the employers are breaking the law by hiring someone who is undocumented.

“Workers have rights,” she said.  “They need to know that they do and they need to stand up for their rights.”