They Got Hurt At Work — Then They Got Deported

Aug 16, 2017
Originally published on August 16, 2017 11:12 pm

At age 31, Nixon Arias cut a profile similar to many unauthorized immigrants in the United States. A native of Honduras, he had been in the country for more than a decade and had worked off and on for a landscaping company for nine years. The money he earned went to building a future for his family in Pensacola, Fla. His Facebook page was filled with photos of fishing and other moments with his three boys, ages 3, 7 and 8.

But in November 2013, that life began to unravel.

The previous year, Arias had been mowing the median of Highway 59 just over the Alabama line when his riding lawnmower hit a hole, throwing him into the air. He slammed back in his seat, landing hard on his lower back.

Arias received pain medication, physical therapy and steroid injections through his employer's workers' compensation insurance. But the pain in his back made even walking or sitting a struggle. So his doctor recommended an expensive surgery to implant a device that sends electrical pulses to the spinal cord to relieve chronic pain. Six days after that appointment, the insurance company suddenly discovered that Arias had been using a deceased man's Social Security number and rejected not only the surgery but all of his past and future care.

Desperate, Arias hired an attorney to help him pursue the injury benefits that Florida law says all employees, including unauthorized immigrants, are entitled to receive. Then one morning after he dropped off two of his boys at school, Arias was pulled over and arrested, while his toddler watched from his car seat.

Arias was charged with using a false Social Security number to get a job and to file for workers' comp. The state insurance fraud unit had been tipped off by a private investigator hired by his employer's insurance company.

With his back still in pain from three herniated or damaged disks, Arias spent a year and a half in jail and immigration detention before he was deported.

However people feel about immigration, judges and lawmakers nationwide have long acknowledged that the employment of unauthorized workers is a reality of the American economy. From nailing shingles on roofs to cleaning hotel rooms, some 8 million immigrants work with false or no papers nationwide, and studies show they're more likely to be hurt or killed on the job than other workers. So over the years, nearly all 50 states, including Florida, have given these workers the right to receive workers' comp.

But in 2003, Florida's lawmakers added a catch, making it a crime to file a workers' comp claim using false identification. Since then, insurers have avoided paying for injured immigrant workers' lost wages and medical care by repeatedly turning them in to the state.

Workers like Arias have been charged with felony workers' comp fraud even though their injuries are real and happened on the job. And in a challenging twist of logic, immigrants can be charged with workers' comp fraud even if they've never been injured or filed a claim, because legislators also made it illegal to use a fake ID to get a job. In many cases, the state's insurance fraud unit has conducted unusual sweeps of worksites, arresting a dozen employees for workers' comp fraud after merely checking their Social Security numbers.

What's quietly been happening to workers in Florida, unnoticed even by immigrant advocates, could be a harbinger of the future as immigration enforcement expands under President Trump.

One of Trump's first executive orders broadened Immigration and Customs Enforcement's priorities to include not just those convicted of or charged with a crime but any immigrant suspected of one. The order also targets anyone who has "engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency." That language could sweep in countless injured unauthorized workers because state workers' comp bureaus and medical facilities typically request Social Security numbers as part of the claims process.

In the past few months, a Massachusetts construction worker who fractured his femur when he fell from a ladder was detained by ICE shortly after meeting with his boss to discuss getting help for his injury. In Ohio, Republican lawmakers pushed a bill that would have barred undocumented immigrants from getting workers' comp. It passed the state's House of Representatives before stalling in the Senate in June.

To assess the impact of Florida's law on undocumented workers, ProPublica and NPR analyzed 14 years of state insurance fraud data and thousands of pages of court records. We found nearly 800 cases statewide in which employees were arrested under the law, including at least 130 injured workers. An additional 125 workers were arrested after a workplace injury prompted the state to check the personnel records of other employees. Insurers have used the law to deny workers benefits after a litany of serious workplace injuries, from falls off roofs to severe electric shocks. A house painter was rejected after she was impaled on a wooden stake.

Flagged by insurers or their private detectives, state fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor's appointments and at depositions in their workers' comp cases. Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings. At least 1 in 4 of those arrested was subsequently detained by ICE or deported.

State officials defended their enforcement, noting that the workers, injured or not, violated the law and could have caused financial harm if the Social Security numbers they were using belonged to someone else. Moreover, the law requires insurers to report any worker suspected of fraud.

"We don't have the authority or the responsibility to go out and start analyzing the intent of an insurance company or anybody else when they submit a complaint to us," said Simon Blank, director of the Florida insurance fraud unit. "It would be unfortunate," he said, if insurers turned in injured workers "just to do away with claims."

Blank insisted that his investigators' efforts have nothing to do with immigration. But ProPublica and NPR's review found that more than 99 percent of the workers arrested under the statute were Hispanic immigrants working with false papers.

While Florida's statute is unique, insurers, hard-line conservatives and some large employers have been battling across the country for the past 15 years to deny injury benefits to unauthorized immigrants, with occasional success. In a little-noticed ruling last fall, an international human rights commission criticized the United States for violating the rights of unauthorized immigrants, including a Pennsylvania apple picker who was forced to settle his case for a fraction of the cost of his injury and a Kansas painter who was unable to get the cast removed from his broken hand until he was deported to Mexico.

In Florida, cases against such workers have become standard practice for a group of closely affiliated insurers and employers. The private investigative firm they employ has created a wall of shame, posting the arrests it has been involved in on its website. Critics say the arrangement encourages employers to hire unauthorized immigrants, knowing they won't have to pay for their injuries if they get hurt on the job.

"It's infuriating to think that when workers are hurt in the United States, they're essentially discarded," said David Michaels, the most recent head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "If employers know that workers are too afraid to apply for workers' compensation, what's the incentive to work safely?"

The law's real-life ramifications came as a surprise to one of the lawyers who helped draft it and who had no idea it had been used to charge hundreds of workers who had never been hurt on the job.

"How is there insurance fraud if there's no comp claim?" asked Mary Ann Stiles, a longtime business lobbyist and attorney for insurers. "That would not be what anybody intended it to be."

In Arias' case, records show he never wrote the false Social Security number on any of the various forms related to his claim. It was printed automatically by the insurance carrier, using information from his employer. But that didn't stop the state attorney from charging him with 42 counts of insurance fraud — one for every form the number appeared on.

As part of the prosecution, investigators demanded Arias pay back $38,490.51 to Normandy Harbor Insurance for the medical care and benefits checks he had already received for his injury. The insurer declined to comment. Back in Honduras, Arias, who struggles with chronic back pain, has been unable to find more than odd jobs. And he hasn't seen his three U.S.-born sons in more than two years.

The whole time in detention, "I was always asking, 'Why? What's the reason I'm here? I haven't done anything, I haven't stolen anything; I haven't killed anyone,' " Arias said by phone from his rural village in the state of Copán. "I was just working for my kids."

A company's control over injury claims

The website of Command Investigations, located just outside Orlando, boasts of its success in hunting down workers' comp fraud, posting like trophies a gallery of mug shots of mostly Hispanic men and women. But most of those pictured weren't nabbed jet-skiing with a fake knee injury. They are legitimately injured workers whom Command investigators caught using false Social Security numbers.

Command, which tipped off the state to Arias, opened up shop in 2012 and quickly rose to prominence in Florida by catering to the lucrative employee leasing industry. Unlike temp agencies, which find workers and task them to businesses, employee leasing companies promise to lower businesses' overhead by hiring their employees on paper and then leasing them back. The basic premise is that by pooling the risk of several small businesses, leasing companies can bargain for better insurance rates. Such a setup is especially attractive to mom and pop firms in dangerous industries, such as construction.

One of Command's first big clients was Lion Insurance, whose affiliate SouthEast Personnel Leasing serves as the employer of record for more than 200,000 employees nationwide. According to its website, SouthEast generates $2.3 billion in annual revenue — about as much as clothing retailer J. Crew or the restaurant chain Red Lobster.

Since 2013, nearly 75 percent of the injured immigrants arrested in Florida for using false IDs were turned in by Command — and half worked for SouthEast, ProPublica and NPR found. SouthEast has had 43 injured workers arrested for using false Social Security numbers — more than any other company.

One reason: SouthEast, as well as its insurance carrier, Lion, and its claims processor, Packard Claims, are all owned by the same person. The unusual arrangement gives the company more control over injury claims and a consistency other firms specializing in high-risk industries can't provide. But critics say it benefits SouthEast in more pernicious ways: Knowing that Lion and Packard can deny the claims of unauthorized workers allows SouthEast to offer discounts to contractors that other leasing firms can't.

"They sign up these companies knowing full well that 95 percent of the employees are immigrant workers," said Cora Cisneros Molloy, who recently began representing injured workers after two decades defending employers and insurers. "Only after an accident occurred do they determine they're going to do an investigation and check that Social Security number."

Controlling the empire from a six-story office building surrounded by palm trees in Holiday, Fla., is John Porreca, 68, who grew up in Philadelphia and worked in the leasing business before buying SouthEast with his wife in 1995. Despite owning one of the largest private companies in Florida, Porreca has managed to stay out of the public eye, showing up in the local press only rarely, such as when he donated the money for a baseball field for disabled children or bought a $4 million beachfront mansion, the size of which rankled neighbors.

Porreca didn't respond to multiple messages left at his office or home over the course of a month. In an email, Brian Evans, an attorney for SouthEast, said Porreca declined to comment other than to say that SouthEast "strictly adheres" to the law and is not responsible for what happened to its workers, even though the company's investigators reported them to the state.

Command's president, Steve Cassell, also declined interview requests, citing confidentiality agreements with his clients.

Bram Gechtman, a Miami attorney who has represented several injured SouthEast workers, said the sheer number of cases in which Lion and Packard discovered workers' false IDs only after they were injured raises the question of why SouthEast doesn't do more to screen its hires.

"If I had a situation where I had all these people defrauding my company over and over and over again, allegedly, I would do something to try to stop it," he said, "unless there was another reason why I didn't want it to stop."

Command and SouthEast have recently expanded to other states. Last year, a woman in Georgia was arrested for identity theft after a cart ran over her foot at a meatpacking plant and Command turned her in to the state workers' comp bureau. In California, two staffing agencies sued SouthEast, saying its claims processor routinely denied workers' comp claims based on immigration status, leading to litigation that increased the cost of the claims.

For workers, welcomed without question until they get hurt, getting caught in Command and SouthEast's dragnet can upend otherwise quiet lives.

Berneth Javier Castro originally came to the United States on a tourist visa in 2005 searching for the woman he had loved and lost during the war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Unable to find her and facing debts back home for his house and his daughter's school, Castro, now 52, overstayed his visa and found work at a St. Augustine roofing company in 2007. Initially, he was paid in cash under the table. But after a few months, the company said he needed a Social Security number to continue working. So he bought one. It was the only way he could get work, he said.

In 2011, Castro finally reconnected with Lucía Escobar using modern technology — he found her on Facebook. Escobar, 48, who had received asylum and is now a U.S. citizen, was going through a divorce. They began talking every day and planned to be together once the divorce was final.

Like many unauthorized workers, Castro feared he would be deported if he reported an injury. So when he sliced his pinkie on some copper sheeting and got nine stitches, he stayed quiet and kept working. But a few months later, when he wrenched his back passing a load of tiles to a coworker on a roof, the company sent him to a clinic.

There, a company representative filled out the form since it was in English, Castro said. He didn't recall the Social Security number he'd used, so the representative got it from the company and put it on the form.

The clinic gave Castro some pills for the pain. But when he returned for the follow-up appointment, he was told there was a problem with his Social Security number. Castro never returned and treated his back with heating pads and pain relief balms. He figured that was the end of it and continued working for the company for nearly a year.

Then in November 2013, state investigators turned up at his home and arrested him for insurance fraud. He had been turned in by a Command investigator working for Lion.

The workers' comp fraud charges were eventually dropped, but Castro pleaded no contest to fraudulently using someone else's identity. He spent five months in jail and was facing deportation before a judge granted him a voluntary departure to Nicaragua.

"The fake number, I understood because I needed it to work, but I didn't understand the fraud," Castro said by phone from Managua. "I'm not an irrational man. I'm not a criminal. So I didn't understand where I might have committed fraud. It didn't make sense to me. I never filled out a document asking for anything looking for compensation."

Escobar sensed something was wrong when she suddenly stopped hearing from him. Then his phone was disconnected. "Every day, I went on Facebook, hoping and writing to him," she said.

Months later, when he finally called her from Nicaragua, she was at once relieved and despondent. In 2015, after her divorce was final, she flew to Nicaragua and married him. But they still live separately, Castro in Nicaragua and Escobar outside Miami, where she cares for her grandson. They are applying for Castro to return, but the conviction could stand in his way.

"It's sad because when you get married, you want to be with your husband," Escobar said. "We waited for so long to be together."

New tactics from employers and insurers

Over the years, numerous courts have upheld the rights of unauthorized workers to receive compensation for workplace injuries, the minimum wage and protection from retaliation for joining unions. The rights stem from their status as employees regardless of their status as immigrants.

A Florida appeals court, for example, ruled in 1982 that "an alien illegally in this country" is entitled to workers' comp benefits.

That presumption was thrown into doubt in 2002 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a group of undocumented plastics workers fired for union activities weren't entitled to back pay because of their immigration status. Insurers and large employers immediately flooded the courts with petitions designed to claw back labor protections for unauthorized immigrants. Leading the fight in Florida were employee leasing firms.

The petitioners argued that undocumented immigrants weren't entitled to workers' comp since their employment was obtained illegally. Lawmakers in several states, from Colorado to North Carolina, introduced bills to block claims by unauthorized workers.

As state courts and legislatures rejected that argument, insurers began pushing to deny immigrants disability benefits, arguing that once their unauthorized status was known, they couldn't return, like other workers, to less intensive jobs. That reasoning succeeded in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but not in Delaware and Tennessee.

In the past few years, employers and insurers have begun using a new tactic, arguing that they should only be responsible for paying lost wages based on what the immigrant would have made in his or her home country. In Nebraska, for example, meatpacker Cargill tried to cut off benefits to Odilon Visoso, who was injured when a 200-pound piece of beef fell on his head, saying it was too difficult to determine what he could earn in Chilpancingo, Mexico, a crime-ridden city controlled by drug cartels near his rural, mountainous village. Nebraska's Supreme Court told the company to use Nebraska wages.

Florida's 2003 law was part of a sweeping overhaul aimed at lowering costs for employers. According to a state Senate review, the division of insurance fraud had pushed for the provision, arguing that "many times illegal aliens are in league with unethical doctors and lawyers who bilk the workers' compensation system." It was easier to prove that immigrants had lied about their identities, the agency said, than to prove their injuries were fabricated.

In recent interviews, however, representatives from the state fraud unit and insurance industry couldn't identify a single case where immigrants had worked with doctors and lawyers to defraud workers' comp. Instead, they noted that false Social Security numbers impede insurers' ability to investigate claims. In addition, they said, those claims could prevent the people whose identity was stolen from getting benefits if they are injured in the future.

Stiles, the attorney who was a key architect of the law, said the state's construction industry was rife with fraud at the time and there was a lot of concern about illegal immigration. She said even immigrants who are "truly injured" should be denied benefits if they're using illegal documents for their claim and "they shouldn't be here in the first place."

"I think we're a nation of laws and we ought to be able to enforce those laws," she said. "And if the federal government won't do it, sometimes the state has to help itself."

Within months of the provision passing, though, the state Senate's banking and insurance committee recommended reconsideration, raising concerns that legitimately injured workers could be disqualified. But that advice was never heeded. The first criminal cases under the law showed up in 2006. The law netted laborers, farmworkers, roofers and landscapers. Several, like Arias, were hurt while working on public projects — renovating schools or pouring concrete at the zoo. But ProPublica and NPR also found arrested workers who had been injured at McDonald's and Best Western and turned in by major insurers like Travelers, The Hartford and Zurich.

In one case, state investigators found that more than 100 workers were all using a Social Security number belonging to a 10-year-old girl.

One of SouthEast's first cases involved a hotel housekeeper at the Comfort Suites in Vero Beach. Yuliana Rocha Zamarripa was cleaning a hotel room in 2010 when she slipped on a bathroom floor and slammed her knee on the bathtub, leaving her with pain and swelling so severe she was unable to walk.

Lion sent her to a doctor but quickly denied her claim based on a false Social Security number.

Rocha's mother had brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 13, and when she turned 17, her father bought her the fake ID so she could work.

With few options, Rocha, now 32, settled her workers' comp case for less than $6,000 plus attorney fees. But she never got the medical care she needed. The week before she was to receive the check, she was arrested while making breakfast for her 4-year-old son.

Rocha spent the next year cycling through jail and immigration detention, separated from her three children. She couldn't sleep, worrying what would happen to them if she were deported.

"I said the Lord's Prayer all the time, and I would end by asking, 'God, give me a chance to return to my children. Don't let anything bad happen to them,' " she said. "I had a feeling that something was not right."

Rocha's instincts were correct. While she was in jail, the father of her children started sexually assaulting their 10-year-old daughter, according to his arrest warrant. "I was left shattered," Rocha said tearfully, "because I didn't know what was happening."

With the help of an attorney, Rocha pleaded to a lesser charge — "perjury not in an official proceeding" — and was finally released. Because of what happened to Rocha's daughter, the attorney was able to get Rocha's deportation canceled and help her obtain a green card.

Rocha eventually received her settlement but had to spend all of it securing her release and dealing with immigration. She now walks with a limp because her injury didn't heal correctly.

"I think it's an injustice what happened to me," she said. "All because I fell, I slipped."

Using workers' comp law to engage in immigration enforcement

The sting had been meticulously planned for weeks. The day before, detectives had scoped out the site — a two-story office building resembling a Spanish colonial mansion near downtown Fort Myers. Before the arrest, they ducked out of sight to surveil the building's back entrance from across the street, according to the detective's case report.

The time and manpower weren't to nab a gang member or drug dealer, but a coordinated effort with Command to snare a 27-year-old roofer who was at a court reporter's office to testify in a deposition for his workers' comp case. A year earlier in 2014, Erik Martinez was working on a roof when a nail ricocheted and hit him in the left eye. He was seeking medical care and lost wages, but like many construction workers, he was using a false Social Security number.

Though it was ostensibly a Florida Department of Financial Services operation, a state detective had worked closely with an attorney for Lion on a plan to alert officers in the final minutes of the deposition. In between questions, the attorney emailed the detective, at one point providing a description of Martinez's clothing.

"We moved our position to the back parking lot," the detective wrote in his report, "where we awaited word that the deposition was nearing an end." Upon receiving confirmation, the detectives moved in, arresting Martinez as he exited the office.

Despite the extensive effort, the state attorney declined to prosecute. But the detective's narrative reveals a larger story: In most of the injury cases reviewed by ProPublica and NPR, state fraud detectives were handed a packet from private investigators with nearly all the information needed to make an arrest.

During an hourlong interview in Tallahassee, Simon Blank, who heads the department's Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, said his detectives conduct their own investigations and make their own decisions. Arrests at depositions, he said, only occur when they have a hard time locating somebody.

"The thing that you need to keep mind is these people are committing identity theft," Blank said. "They're taking somebody else's Social Security number or somebody else's personal information to obtain the work."

While Blank repeatedly expressed compassion for immigrant workers who are legitimately injured, he noted that people whose Social Security numbers are used could face problems with their credit or getting medical care if a claim that wasn't theirs showed up in their records.

The widow of the Mississippi man whose Social Security number Arias was using, Carolyn Lasseter, said it hadn't affected her, but she doesn't "feel sorry for people that are over here illegally." When she bought a house after her husband's death, the bank informed her that a different man had used his number to take out, and pay on, a loan, but it was easily fixed.

Blank's office has been accused by some attorneys of unconstitutionally using the workers' comp law to engage in immigration enforcement. "The real intent behind what they're doing is to regulate immigration," said Florida immigration attorney Jimmy Benincasa, "because they don't feel the federal government is doing enough."

He and others point to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a series of Arizona immigration statutes, including one that made it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to apply for, solicit or perform work.

"Congress decided it would be inappropriate to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek or engage in unauthorized employment," the court wrote. "It follows that a state law to the contrary is an obstacle to the regulatory system Congress chose."

The court noted that while federal law makes it a crime to obtain employment through fraudulent means, the forms and documents that workers submit to get jobs can only be used for federal prosecution — not for state enforcement.

"Our agency is not in the business of going after illegal people," Blank said. "There's quite a lot of other circumstances why people use fake names and IDs and Social Security numbers aside from immigration. You have people who might have other legal problems. You have people who are wanting to stay off the books for specific reasons, whether its divorces or liens put against them."

Among the nearly 800 cases that ProPublica and NPR identified, only five fit the reasons Blank cited. Blank seemed unaware that earlier this year, his own office's annual report noted that "nearly 100 percent" of the suspects investigated under the statute were undocumented workers.

"It appears that it's being applied in a discriminatory fashion," said Dennis Burke, the former U.S. attorney in Arizona who challenged that state's immigration statutes. "How do you justify your enforcement being 99 percent Latino surnames?"

Burke predicted Florida would have a tough time defending the law if it's ever heard on constitutional grounds. After the Arizona ruling in 2012, one attorney challenged the Florida statute's constitutionality, but both Florida and U.S. supreme courts declined to take the appeal. Unlike Arizona's law, the statute doesn't mention immigrants specifically. But Burke said the enforcement data and the stated intent to target immigrant fraud rings are problematic.

Told of what had happened to some of the arrested workers, Blank said he felt for those people but reiterated his agency's obligation to protect the workers' comp system.

"I guess that is a question that our legislature should maybe look into," he said. "What is the balance between the harm and the benefit that's being accomplished?"

"My son was watching. He saw when they put the handcuffs on me"

Juvenal Dominguez Quino worries what will happen to his 8-year-old son with special needs if he gets deported. Dominguez, 43, has lived in the United States for 19 years. But his life was thrown into uncertainty in 2014 when a construction trench he was working in collapsed, burying him in dirt and causing him to sprain his knee.

A month later, Command turned him in to state investigators after he provided a false Social Security number to an insurance adjuster. Dominguez said he told the adjuster he didn't have papers and had made the number up in order to work — details that by themselves wouldn't preclude him from receiving workers' comp. But Dominguez said the adjuster insisted she needed the number to pay him benefits. Sunz Insurance and North American Risk Services, which handled the claim, declined to comment.

Dominguez was arrested in January 2015 as he was getting his son ready for school.

"My son was watching" from a window, he said, choking up. "He saw when they put the handcuffs on me."

At the time, Dominguez still couldn't bend his knee, so he had to sit with his legs extended across the back seat of the police car.

Dominguez pleaded no contest, and the judge sentenced him to two years' probation and ordered him to pay back nearly $19,000 in restitution to the insurance company. He was detained by ICE and put into deportation proceedings.

Michael DiGiacomo, owner of Platinum Construction, which employed Dominguez, was surprised to hear what had become of him. DiGiacomo said Dominguez was a reliable worker, and he didn't know his documents were fake. After Dominguez got hurt, he said, his injury was in the hands of the leasing company and their insurer.

"It really sucks for him because, you know, you come and you want to work; it sucks to have to deal with that after you got hurt," he said. "They should have at least paid for his medical bills since he was hurt on the job."

Dominguez's attorney has argued for a judge to cancel his deportation because of the harmful effect it would have on his U.S.-born son. His attorney is hopeful he will get a visa to stay.

Even if he does, the insurance company scored a victory — it got Dominguez and his medical costs to go away. "I didn't want to do any more of anything," he said of his physical therapy. "I didn't want to claim anything else. I just wanted to live with it because I knew that it would only bring me more problems."

Arias' attorney Brian Carter said what the state and insurance companies are doing amounts to entrapment and ethnic profiling.

"Nobody looks at whether or not the Social Security number is valid for an individual named Tom Smith," he said. "The insurance companies are using this little issue over a Social Security number to avoid any financial responsibility, and in my opinion, ethical responsibility to take care of these individuals."

In the end, turning in Arias didn't get the insurer off the hook. Because the state attorney offered a plea deal, Normandy would have had to convince a workers' comp judge that Arias had not only used a fake Social Security number but that he had done so to obtain benefits. If it couldn't, it would have had to pay for medical treatment and lost wages potentially totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, Carter said. So with Arias in Honduras, Normandy offered $49,000 plus attorney's fees.

Sent back to a country he hadn't lived in for 15 years, Arias felt he had no choice but to take the offer. "I arrived empty-handed," he said. "I didn't have means to put a roof over my head or feed myself or buy medications."

Despite having the settlement money, Arias said he doesn't trust the doctors in Honduras to perform a delicate back surgery. "Here, they're more likely to send you to the cemetery," he said. He hopes the United States might allow him to re-enter for humanitarian reasons, just to let him get the operation — and perhaps see his kids.

Research contributed by Meg Anderson and Graham Bishai of NPR and Sarah Betancourt of ProPublica.

Do you have information about how immigrant workers are being treated in the age of Trump? Contact Michael at michael.grabell@propublica.org.

Copyright 2017 ProPublica. To see more, visit ProPublica.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Studies show the 8 million workers in the U.S. illegally are doing some of the most dangerous jobs. They face high rates of injury and death. States such as Florida give undocumented immigrants the right to workers' compensation when they're injured on the job. But an NPR and ProPublica investigation found dozens of cases of undocumented workers being arrested, prosecuted and even deported. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: In a cramped kitchen in Fellsmere, Fla...

(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER WHIRRING)

BERKES: ...Thirty-two-year-old Yuliana Rocha uses a mixer churn waffle batter in a bowl. She was doing something similar seven years ago, preparing breakfast for her little boy, who was 4 then and watching cartoons.

YULIANA ROCHA: (Through interpreter) All of a sudden, I hear a knock at the door, and I got scared because they were officers. One officer pushed me, and two or three officers entered. They came in the house and checked the rooms, the kitchen, everything. I just stood there, saying, what is happening? Why are you searching my house?

BERKES: The agents included a state insurance detective. Rocha tried to comfort her son.

ROCHA: (Through interpreter) He saw everything, and he was crying. He was saying to me, Mommy, why are there police in the house, Mommy? And he just hugged me and cried. I asked the officer, why are you arresting me? And he told me that it was because I asked for workers' compensation.

BERKES: Eight months before, Rocha slipped and banged her knee hard on a bathtub while working at a locally owned Comfort Suites in Vero Beach. She suffered contusions and pain so bad she couldn't walk or stand. But instead of getting ongoing workers' compensation benefits, Rocha was charged with felony workers' comp fraud even though her injury was legitimate. She was shuffled for months from county to immigration jails, worried about her three children.

ROCHA: (Through interpreter) I was away from my children for a year. I didn't see them. I only spoke with them.

BERKES: Once she was jailed, according to court documents, the sexual assaults began at home. Rocha's 10-year-old daughter was raped repeatedly by her father, who was convicted and imprisoned for life. Rocha believes the nightmare her daughter endures wouldn't have happened if she'd been home to protect her.

ROCHA: (Through interpreter) She's afraid to go out, to speak with people. She always stays glued to my side. She doesn't want to sleep alone in her room. It's hard, and it's sad. But I pray often to God that he give me the strength to be able to move my daughter forward.

BERKES: Rocha herself was just 13 when her mother snuck her across the Mexican border. She was 17 when her father gave her an elicit Social Security number. She needed it to get a job in this country like all undocumented immigrants. Eight years later, that number prompted her arrest. It hadn't been checked thoroughly by any employer until she needed workers' compensation.

BRIAN CARTER: And it looks good when they allege that these people are trying to defraud the system when they're not defrauding the system.

BERKES: Brian Carter is a workers' comp attorney in Pensacola, Fla.

CARTER: The question of them being in the country undocumented is a different question. This focus is whether they're entitled to those benefits. And they are by law.

BERKES: In Florida and most states, the law and court decisions are consistent. Undocumented workers qualify for workers' compensation benefits. That's fundamental, says David Michaels, a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now at George Washington University.

DAVID MICHAELS: If you allow a class of workers who can be injured without any repercussions against the employer, then there's no reason for the employer to keep all workers safe. So that employer is likely to hire more undocumented workers and invest little or nothing in safety. The result - even more workers will be injured.

BERKES: Still, a growing number of states have considered ending workers' comp for undocumented workers. An investigation by NPR and ProPublica found it's already happening in Florida indirectly. There, undocumented workers face criminal charges and even deportation after legitimate injuries at work.

We found 130 cases in state and court records in the last 14 years. And get this. Five-hundred-sixty-five more were charged with workers' comp fraud even though they didn't file workers' comp claims. These cases hinge on a 2003 change in state workers' comp law. It banned the use of illicit Social Security numbers in workers' comp claims or in simply getting jobs.

JIMMY BENINCASA: There's two purposes really that this statute serves for the state of Florida.

BERKES: Jimmy Benincasa is Yuliana Rocha's immigration attorney.

BENINCASA: One is to protect employers' profits by reducing claims and put money back in the pockets of the insurance companies and employers. But the real intent behind what they're doing is to regulate immigration because they don't feel the federal government's doing enough.

BERKES: The state agency involved says immigration has nothing to do with its aggressive enforcement. Simon Blank directs Florida's insurance fraud unit.

SIMON BLANK: The statute is not meant to go after illegal people. The statute is meant to go against anyone who uses fictitious personal information. And the concern is that there's always somebody that's being impacted by it.

BERKES: Blank says the Social Security numbers might be used for identity theft, credit fraud, avoiding liens or hiding assets. And the law requires employers, insurance companies and his agency to respond.

BLANK: I think you're looking at it from the immigration point of view. There's quite a lot of other circumstances why people use fake names and IDs and Social Security numbers. It's not always an immigration issue.

BERKES: But it mostly is by far. State records analyzed by NPR and ProPublica show nearly 800 cases investigated under this law. Almost all involve undocumented immigrants with Hispanic surnames. Only six cases do not - just six. Even the state agency's annual report says close to a hundred percent of the workers investigated are undocumented. At least a quarter of the injured workers charged were either placed on immigration holds or deported.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

BERKES: In an NPR studio in Washington, our producer reaches a cellphone in a remote mountain town in Honduras with sketchy cell service.

NIXON ARIAS: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hola, Nixon.

ARIAS: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish)?

ARIAS: Si.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

BERKES: It took 40 minutes to get through, and the signal was faint. But we finally had Nixon Arias on the line.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

BERKES: For more than a decade, Arias worked in the United States illegally, mostly at the same landscaping company in Pensacola. He was the foreman five years ago when the riding mower he drove hit a hole and jerked him violently. His doctor later recommended an expensive spinal procedure. And six days after that, his employer's workers' comp insurance company suddenly decided to investigate. Arias was eventually arrested, jailed and deported, leaving three sons behind, all American citizens.

ARIAS: (Through interpreter) I was arrested around the time that it was supposed to go into surgery. They gave me some light pain killers while I was in jail. I'd asked for stronger ones, but they didn't allow higher dosages. I started to think about dying there. God forgive me. I even tried to take my own life. I felt worthless.

BERKES: Court records show that Arias didn't actually put his illicit Social Security number on his workers' comp forms. The employer and insurer did that. This is important because Social Security numbers are not required for workers' comp claims in Florida. In fact, the state provides substitute numbers if asked. Workers can be trapped, says attorney Brian Carter, who represents Nixon Arias.

CARTER: If an undocumented worker's entitled to workers' compensation benefits but the only way they get the job is through the use of a false Social Security number and the employer or an insurance company provides that false Social Security number to the doctors for medical treatment, it's automatically set up to capture the individual and the alleged misuse of that number.

BERKES: Undocumented workers need Social Security numbers to get jobs, so Carter wonders why some employers don't thoroughly check those numbers before workers' comp claims are filed. That's what we wanted to ask Florida-based John Porreca, whose employee leasing firm and insurance companies turned in Yuliana Rocha and a third of the injured undocumented workers snared by this law according to public records.

Porreca declined multiple requests for interviews. His attorney wrote that the companies strictly adhere to state and federal law. And it appears that they do. Bram Gechtman is a Miami workers' comp attorney with cases involving Porreca's companies.

BRAM GECHTMAN: We were a bit dumbfounded how a company was able to allow these people that had invalid Social Security numbers work for weeks, months, if not years. But as soon as an injury occurred, they're able to identify that it was then invalid and therefore against the law. It was being used to commit a fraudulent act.

BERKES: Public records show that another company, a private investigation firm, reported 75 percent of the injured undocumented workers prosecuted under this law since 2013. Command Investigations has a wall of shame on its website showing booking photos of dozens of these workers, including Nixon Arias. Command's CEO, Steve Cassell, also declined to be interviewed. Simon Blank of the state insurance fraud unit says he's sympathetic with undocumented workers who suffer under his agency's enforcement.

BLANK: And I think that any person that has a family, has kids would feel for them, too. You know, the question is still, is this causing more harm than good - I guess is one that should be taken up by the legislature and other bodies.

BERKES: Actually, it was Blank's agency that sought this authority according to a state senate report, arguing that undocumented immigrants conspire with unethical lawyers and doctors to bilk the workers' comp system. But neither Blank nor his agency could provide a single example of an actual case. All of this baffles Nixon Arias, who struggled in jail to make sense of his predicament.

ARIAS: (Through interpreter) I was always asking, why? What's the reason I'm here? I haven't stolen anything. I haven't killed anyone. I haven't done anything.

BERKES: Arias hasn't seen his sons in two years. He still suffers pain and needs surgery. Yuliana Rocha says she's still in pain.

ROCHA: (Through interpreter) I think it's an injustice what happened to me all because I fell. I slipped. All of this didn't have to happen. And because of this, because I was in jail, because of this injustice, my daughter suffered so much.

BERKES: And because her daughter was raped and because her daughter is an American citizen and because her daughter is a minor and needs her mother's support, Rocha's attorney was able to get her a green card. She has a real Social Security number now and legally works, washing dishes in a Florida restaurant. Most aren't so lucky - if you can call that luck. Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.