Occupational Health Officials Oblivious to Legal/Illegal Distinction

By David North on June 15, 2010

Two federal occupational health officials, discussing the severe job-site health issues of immigrants yesterday, simply ignored the variable of legal or illegal presence.

No one is arguing that a physician should not set the broken leg of an illegal alien, but it would be helpful if records were kept as to the likelihood of broken bones among different kinds of migrants.

The setting for the display of this attitude was a sober and otherwise thoughtful discussion entitled "Migration and Occupational Health: Shining a Light on the Problem," a seminar sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The point was made repeatedly that migrants often have the most dangerous jobs, and that within a given occupation migrants were more likely to be injured, or become diseased, than natives doing the same work. It was pointed out that, all else being equal, that recent migrants were more likely to be harmed while working than less recent ones.

But no data were presented on the health risks of legal vs. illegal immigrants. That's a subject the speakers did not want to touch.

When asked about this, Deborah Berkowitz, chief of staff of the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said "we don't see that issue." Another speaker, Dr. Marc Schenker of the University of California at Davis, a physician, said that he had taken an oath to treat people of all races, a comment that did not address the question of gathering data on who is more likely to get hurt on the job. One of his papers was distributed at the session.

A third speaker, not present at the Q&A time, was John Howard, Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; he discussed the differential safety records of immigrants for several minutes without touching on the legal/illegal variable, or the documented/undocumented aspect, as his panel colleagues put it.

One of the reasons that migrants get hurt more than others, several speakers said, was because of a fear of losing a job because of asking too many questions, a fear that might logically be tied to one's illegal status. But that linkage was not explored.

What was discussed was the concentration of migrants in the less attractive, more dangerous jobs in society. Further, the much more spotty regulation of agricultural jobs, rather than non-ag jobs, was cited as one of the causes of the bad safety records in that field.

MPI will make a recording of the seminar available in the near future here. Similarly, copies of the papers discussed at the seminar are usually available on the internet shortly after these sessions.