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Civil Rights Protections Don't Extend to Wife of Illegal Immigrant

Civil rights law does not protect workers or their spouses against employer discrimination based on their alien status, says an appellate court.

May 23, 2012
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Civil rights law does not protect workers or their spouses against employer discrimination based on their alien status, says an appellate court.

According to the May 21 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Kristi J. Cortezano vs. Salin Bank & Trust Co., Cortezano had married her husband Javier, an illegal alien from Mexico, in 2001. She subsequently named her husband a joint owner on her account at Salin Bank, where she worked as a sales manager, and helped him open two accounts of his own.

After she informed her supervisor that she had joint accounts at the Indianapolis-based bank with a known undocumented alien, there ensued a course of events that ultimately led to her termination in February 2008. Kristi Cortezano filed suit, charging employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other charges.

However, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit held that she could not pursue her lawsuit. "Even assuming that Title VII applies to discrimination against one's spouse, Kristi's claim falls short because it is based on Javier's alienage, which is not protected by the statute," said the unanimous ruling.

"Even reading the record in the light most favorable to Kristi, it is beyond dispute that Salin Bank's actions were motivated by the fact that Javier's presence in the United States was unauthorized," it said.

Title VII does not guard against "alienage-based discrimination," said the ruling. "Discrimination based on one's status as an immigrant might have been included within the ambit of the 'national origin' discrimination...but that is not the path the Supreme Court has taken. The court instead chose almost 40 years ago to adopt a narrower definition of national origin discrimination for purposes of Title VII," said the ruling, citing the court's 1973 ruling in Espinoza vs. Farah Mfg. Co.

The Supreme Court concluded in that ruling that the term "national origin" was limited to "the country from which you or your forebears came…thus, national origin discrimination as defined in Title VII encompasses discrimination based on one's ancestry, but not discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status," said the court, in upholding a lower court ruling dismissing the charge.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the University of California San Diego Medical Center, charging that it discriminated against non-U.S. citizens who are authorized to work in the United States with its employment eligibility verification process.

Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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