After a four-year court battle, Anibal Sanchez's lawsuit against his former employer hinges on a highly unusual request: His lawyer is asking a district judge to let Sanchez testify via live video because he fears immigration authorities could arrest him during the upcoming trial.
Sanchez sued Dahlke Trailer Sales in 2014, alleging the Fridley company had known for years he lacked legal status but only let him go after he got injured on the job and applied for workers' compensation. Dahlke has countered it followed federal law in placing Sanchez on leave. Last year, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court green-lighted a trial.
Meanwhile, the past year has seen an uptick in immigration arrests at courthouses nationally. Last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained a man at his workers' compensation mediation session at the Office of Administrative Hearings in St. Paul. Though new ICE courthouse arrest guidelines suggest Sanchez should not be a target, his attorney says Sanchez would drop his case if he can't testify remotely in the April trial in Anoka County.
"He has no choice. The risk is too great," said his attorney, Joshua Newville.
Immigration arrests at courthouses have become the focus of intense national debate.
Critics say they interfere with due process and have a chilling effect on immigrant victims and witnesses. ICE says that as more local authorities refuse to cooperate with the agency, courthouses are a safe setting at which to detain immigrants, particularly those with criminal convictions.
A lengthy legal fight
In court filings, Sanchez has alleged that during most of his eight years working for Dahlke, his employer knew he was in the country illegally. In the 1990s, a teenage Sanchez and his parents had arrived on tourist visas from Mexico and stayed. According to Sanchez, Dahlke had received notices that his Social Security number was invalid, and supervisors had at times joked about his immigration status.
In 2013, Sanchez seriously injured himself on a sandblaster and enlisted an attorney to help him with a workers' compensation claim. At a deposition weeks after the injury, an attorney for Dahlke's insurer asked Sanchez about his legal status, a question Newville argues was irrelevant.
In Minnesota, as in most states, employees are entitled to workers' compensation regardless of immigration status. Days later, Dahlke put Sanchez on unpaid leave until he could supply proof that he was allowed to work legally.
Sanchez sued under a state statute that prohibits employers from firing workers as retaliation for filing workers' comp claims. Newville argued the leave was a bid by the company and its insurer to make an expensive claim go away.
Zurich North America, the law firm representing Dahlke, said it does not comment on pending litigation. But in court documents, Dahlke has denied knowing about Sanchez's lack of legal status. Once the company found out, it had no choice but to comply with federal law that prohibits knowingly employing unauthorized workers — or face criminal and civil penalties.
Dahlke has stressed that Sanchez could have returned to work if he secured permission to work legally. His workers' comp claim has since been settled.
An Anoka County judge dismissed the case, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-to-3 that the case should go to trial.
A dissenting opinion said that as Dahlke confronted the impossible task of complying with conflicting state and federal requirements, federal law rightfully trumped state law.
Given that federal law aims to discourage employers from hiring workers without legal status, the court majority said ignoring allegations that employers tried to dodge workers' comp payments and other labor protections only makes it cheaper and easier for them to hire unauthorized workers; that undermines the federal law's goal of discouraging the hiring of such workers.
With a trial now slated for April, Newville says his client faces a new hurdle: concerns about stepped-up immigration enforcement at courthouses.
Courthouse arrests up
Over the past year, ICE courthouse arrests have drawn headlines, an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit in Oregon and criticism from chief justices in California and Washington state.
In Minnesota, the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office decried such arrests last year after ICE agents detained clients following a probation appointment and a DWI sentencing. For Sanchez's case, Twin Cities attorney Scott Teplinsky offered an account of a client's arrest at a required workers' comp mediation hearing at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
The client had balked at going because co-workers told him his employer had reported him to ICE, but Teplinsky reassured him. In more than 30 years of representing clients, including many without legal status, he had never heard about ICE targeting an immigrant at such a hearing.
But that day, immigration agents were waiting for the client, who has since been deported.
Tammy Pust, chief judge at the OAH, said that arrest is the only one she is aware of in the building. Staff members only found out about it after it happened.
New ICE guidelines
ICE locally has said that it does not track arrests by location but courthouse arrests are nothing new. Because of weapons screening at courthouses, those arrests are safer for agents and the community. They have focused primarily on illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
In January, ICE issued new guidelines saying arrests at courthouses should focus on convicted criminals, gang members and those who have flouted orders to leave the country or returned after previous deportations. The agency will refrain from picking up witnesses or family members of defendants, as well as those in court on noncriminal matters.
"ICE's enforcement activities in these same courthouses are wholly consistent with long-standing law enforcement practices, nationwide," said Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE. "And, courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails."
Sanchez, who has two U.S. citizen children, should not be a candidate for arrest during the trial. He has a clean record and has never had a run-in with immigration authorities. But Newville and Sanchez say they are not reassured, saying that Dahlke's recent refusal to discuss a potential out-of-court settlement makes them fear someone with the company might tip off immigration authorities before the trial.
Newville says his firm and Sanchez will cover the cost of setting up the technology for the live video.
"There is no fundamental difference between him being in the courthouse and on the screen," he said.
An uncommon practice
Teresa Nelson, the legal director at the ACLU of Minnesota, says testifying remotely is still uncommon, but her organization supports pushing for wider use given immigration enforcement concerns.
Sanchez said he has long feared the case would place him on the radar of immigration authorities. He says he has felt torn between his allegiance to the case and the sense that going to court is too risky for him and his family.
"This has been a big battle over four years," he said. But if he can't testify remotely, he says, "We would have to drop the case because I can't go to court."