Tennessee Judge: Comp Benefit Limits for Undocumented Workers Unconstitutional

A Nashville judge has found to be unconstitutional a state law that limits the amount of workers’ compensation benefits laborers living in the country illegally can receive.

The ruling stems from the case of a Guatemalan man whose left arm was severely injured when he fell and it was run over by a lawnmower.

In a ruling issued last month, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins said the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to set immigration policy and not the state legislature. Perkins also noted that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down an Arizona anti-immigrant law, noted that the constitution gives the federal government “broad, undoubted power over immigration.”

Perkins found that the legislature, by limiting the benefits to the workers, intended to establish what amounts to a state immigration policy, but that could not trump federal law. He also said the state law, which limited the amount of money employers would potentially pay, could encourage employers to hire workers who are living in the country illegally.

“This undermines the goals of federal immigration law by providing a potential incentive for employers to circumvent the law,” the ruling said.

The opinion noted that Nashville-area company Commercial Services employed Carlos Martinez knowing that he was in the country illegally.

As a result, he said Martinez, a 39-year-old who had made about $400 a week working for the company, is entitled to $45,000 in benefits.

It’s not clear whether the state will appeal.

The state Attorney General’s office said in a statement that it is reviewing the decision and considering the options.

This was a test case used to deliberately challenge state law, said Martinez’s lawyer, Brian Dunigan.

A lot of the workers are performing dangerous work, and employers aren’t willing to help them when they get hurt, he said.

“We see a lot of people being taken advantage of in this area, and so we’re hopeful that we can push back against some of these unfair laws,” Dunigan said.