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Va. Illegal Immigrant Benefits Debated

Legislation Would Limit Workers' Compensation

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Feb. 22 -- The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill that would severely restrict the workers' compensation benefits available to illegal immigrants.

Supporters, who include the state's manufacturing and auto dealer industries, said they need the legislation to rein in rapidly rising medical and wage benefit claims.

Del. Kathy J. Byron, who offered the bill, cited concerns about cracking down on illegal immigration.

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Opponents of the bill, including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO and several advocacy groups for immigrants, said that the bill's backers were exaggerating the financial harm to businesses and that the legislation would lead to a flood of lawsuits against companies from injured workers.

Illegal immigrants employed in Virginia are eligible for some benefits if they are injured on the job. As in about two dozen other states, they can receive most of their pre-injury wages and 100 percent of their medical treatment. Their survivors can also receive death benefits to pay for funerals and other expenses if they are killed in a work-related accident.

Under legislation offered by Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg) and passed by the House this month, such workers would be ineligible for wage assistance and death benefits. They would be able to receive medical benefits only, unless they were able to prove that their employers knew they were in the country illegally.

The bill is the latest attempt in Virginia to scale back illegal immigrants' access to workers' compensation. In 1999, the Virginia Supreme Court held that an undocumented immigrant was not entitled to workers' compensation. But a year later, the General Assembly passed legislation granting them medical and wage benefits.

Now some lawmakers and other backers of House Bill 2056 say it's time to tighten the law to reflect the increasing costs of compensation claims in certain Virginia industries.

Illegal immigration "has come to bite us like you wouldn't believe," said Charles F. Midkiff, the general counsel for the Virginia Manufacturers Association, referring specifically to the state's manufacturing industry. "In the last five years, they've swarmed into every sector including our own, and it's becoming very problematic."

He said that in some cases, wage benefits over a lifetime could range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I've got one case now where the medicals are at $1.8 million and are projected for another $1.2 million," Midkiff said.

Byron, who voted in 2000 to expand immigrants' access to benefits, said she was now concerned about cracking down on illegal immigration.

"They are coming into the country illegally. They are being hired illegally. They are producing the documents illegally. . . . Why are we allowing all this illegal activity to take place as lawmakers?" Byron said.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that there were 103,000 illegal immigrants in Virginia in 2000.

Byron's bill passed a major test Monday evening when the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee voted 9 to 6 to send it to the Senate floor. If passed by the full Senate before the assembly adjourns this week, the bill would go to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

The governor's press secretary, Ellen Qualls, said Warner is generally opposed to scaling back access to such benefits for illegal immigrants but would review the details of Byron's bill if it comes before him.

Opponents in the legislature questioned the claims about harm to businesses.

"I haven't had one call from any constituents about this being a problem," said Sen. H. Russell Potts (R-Winchester). "Where are these so-called victims?"

Others said the bill was designed to score political points. "It's easy to demagogue these people," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). He added that many employers were just as guilty of engaging in illegal activity: "A lot of these [companies] know they are employing illegals."

Most states offer some kind of medical and wage support that covers illegal workers, according to the National Employment Law Project and the National Immigration Law Center, both nonprofit law centers that track immigration issues. State courts in some other states have specifically held that illegal workers are fully covered under their states' workers' compensation laws.

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