In this season of family gatherings, celebration and bounty, let’s take a moment to think about José Arnulfo Arias and workers like him.
Like so many others, Arias came to California seeking a better life, and found work in the agricultural industry, which employs 400,000 to 500,000 California workers and 1.5 million nationally, most of them foreign-born.
At least half of them work without proper documentation. Without them, farms could not operate, a basic reason why Congress must overhaul immigration law.
Arias sued Angelo Dairy in San Joaquin Superior Court, alleging a variety of workplace violations, including failure to provide overtime pay and rest periods. Then a bad situation turned uglier.
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Though Arias didn’t have legal status, Angelo Dairy, a family operation near Lodi, hired him in 1995 as a milker. Two years later, Arias told his boss that another dairy offered him a job. The boss threatened to report the competitor to immigration authorities. Feeling trapped, Arias stayed with Angelo.
Fast-forward a decade. Arias sued Angelo Dairy in San Joaquin County Superior Court, alleging a variety of workplace violations, including failure to provide overtime pay and rest periods. Angelo had little if any defense. It didn’t keep timecards for Arias, who was here illegally. That’s when a bad situation turned uglier.
With the trial approaching in 2011 and Arias’ deposition coming up, Fresno lawyer Anthony Raimondo, who represents Angelo Dairy and other ag employers, called a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official asking about Arias’ immigration status. Raimondo emailed the dairy asking for any additional information about Arias, to pass on to his ICE contact. Angelo obliged by supplying Arias’ driver’s license number.
Raimondo said his goal was to save his client from bankruptcy by invoking a federal law barring Arias’ legal aid attorneys from representing undocumented immigrants. Arias’ attorneys at California Rural Legal Assistance believe the goal was to force a settlement. The case did settle. But that wasn’t the end of it.
On Arias’ behalf, California Rural Legal Assistance and San Francisco-based Legal Aid At Work brought a second suit against the dairy and Raimondo, this one in federal court alleging violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. At the time he signed it, President Franklin Roosevelt called the act “the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted in this or any other country.”
U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley of Sacramento dismissed the case against Raimondo, concluding that the act applied only to the employer, not third parties such as the employer’s lawyer. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in June, emphatically.
Writing for the majority, Judge Stephen S. Trott reached back to a 1944 Supreme Court case that involved Tennessee coal miners and interpreted the Fair Labor Standards Act: “‘We are not here dealing with mere chattels or articles of trade but with the rights of those who toil, of those who sacrifice a full measure of their freedom and talents to the use and profit of others … Such a statute must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.’”
Trott is hardly a liberal, having worked for years as a prosecutor in Los Angeles before President Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney for the Central District of California in 1981, and promoted him to be assistant attorney general, and then associate attorney general, the No. 3 person in the Justice Department. In 1987, Reagan appointed him to the 9th Circuit.
As detailed in a story published by the online investigative journalism site Fairwarning.org, Trott was especially pointed in the oral argument, likening Raimondo to a Mafioso threatening people, and “a serial killer” offering to rid employers of cases brought by farm hands who dared to question their working conditions.
With the trial approaching in 2011, Fresno lawyer Anthony Raimondo, representing Angelo Dairy, pulled an old and dirty trick, alerting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials of the time and place Arias would appear at a deposition.
Raimondo, the 9th Circuit noted, stated in a declaration that it was his practice to investigate the immigration status of plaintiffs who have brought legal claims against his clients. The court cited a 2013 email in which Raimondo wrote: “The times when I have had litigants deported, I have always simply taken action rather than make any threats. The attorneys find out when their clients are already gone.”
“I have never lost one moment of sleep. I didn’t do any of this for myself. I did it for my clients,” Raimondo told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. Unlike others in the saga, Raimondo said, he broke no laws that were on the books at the time.
Arias since has gained legal residency. At the California Labor Federation’s behest, Mayor Darrell Steinberg, then leader of the California Senate, carried legislation, Senate Bill 666, in 2013 aimed in part at Raimondo, and declared that attorneys can lose their law licenses for calling immigration authorities to deport plaintiffs.
Arias vs. Raimondo is not over, however. Three weeks ago, Raimondo’s attorneys at the blue chip appellate firm Horvitz & Levy filed a petition asking that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case; they expect employer groups will urge the high court to reverse the 9th Circuit. Perhaps the Trump administration will weigh in.
We hope not. We hope the justices, particularly Sacramento’s Justice Anthony Kennedy, understand the realities of work in the fields and dairies, and let stand the 9th Circuit decision. We hope that like Trott, the justices find that the Depression-era law that has served workers well must not be applied in a grudging manner.
And we hope that in this holiday season, Californians take a moment of grace to consider the struggles of people who put the food on their tables, and to think of all the José Arnulfo Ariases out there.