TAMPICO, Mexico—People throughout this Mexican port city tell stories of fathers, sons and husbands who went to America to make their fortunes.
The stories vary, but their essence is the same: There's a shadowy border crossing, the purchase of phony work papers, then gritty, grueling jobs that pay glorious amounts of money that almost immediately begins flowing back to this industrial region of 600,000 people.
But darker tales are also common: stories of men who came home battered and broken from doing America's dirty work. Men with no money, unable to work as they once did. Men who are burdens to the families they set out to support.
Down by the docks, in a house shared by 25 people, Olivia Smith lights candles at a shrine to her son, Angel. He died in 2004 working on a Massachusetts fishing boat that sank in stormy seas.
Gabriel Contreras expects his brother, Juan, to return any day from Texas, his eyesight damaged from the blinding arc of his welder's torch. A cab driver recounts how his brother-in-law returned from Atlanta with a broken arm after he tumbled from a scaffold. A lawyer recalls a friend's breathing problems from working with asbestos in North Carolina.
"We get those stories all the time. ... They get injured or very sick from the job, and nobody takes care of them," said Father Curtis Payer of Tampico's Resurrected Christ Catholic chapel. "In general, the work experience is positive. ... (But) some employers don't have any conscience at all—and their workers are literally slaves."
Hispanic and foreign-born workers are hurt and killed in the American workplace at rates higher than other groups largely because so many of them work in dangerous industries that are hungry for cheap labor.
U.S. workers' compensation laws require most American companies to pay for injured workers' medical treatment, lost wages, disabilities and deaths, even if the employees are working illegally. But some unprincipled employers abandon their immigrant laborers. And many of their workers, unaware of their rights and unwilling to fight for benefits for fear of being deported, go home to their families to heal.
Francisco Ruiz is a Tampico native who decided to stay in America and fight.
He was partially paralyzed and brain damaged when he fell 30 feet at a construction site near Charlotte, N.C. His employer, the Belk Masonry Co., and its insurer refused to pay injury benefits because Ruiz was an "illegal alien."
But Ruiz wouldn't go home disabled, with no money and no way to earn it, to a wife and three children who depended on him.
What followed was a six-year struggle between the poor Mexican laborer and his employer's well-financed insurance company.
Similar battles have played out in more than 20 states, experts say, and, in the end, most employers and insurers lose. But that doesn't stop them from tying things up in lengthy proceedings, aiming for a de facto victory when immigrants give up.
For Ruiz, the personal and financial impact of his injury was enormous, and the quest to collect his benefits cost him years away from family at a time when they needed each other most.
Although it lies in a rich, oil-producing region on Mexico's east coast, Tampico is home to many families like Ruiz's, who send their men to America for opportunity.
It's hard to count how many come back hurt. Neither Mexico nor the U.S. identifies or tracks what happens to undocumented Mexicans who are injured on the job in the United States.
A record 917 Hispanics died working in America in 2005, and more than 160,000 are seriously injured each year, according to government statistics. While some immigrants do collect injury benefits from their companies, experts say those who are undocumented are often fired or intimidated into keeping quiet.
"A lot of Mexican workers are persuaded by the American Dream," said Juan Vargas, a law professor at Tampico's Autonomous University of Tamaulipas. "Once they cross and get a job, they think they will be treated according to the law. But they are mistreated ... and they really don't have any channel to complain."
Vargas believes an international court is needed to simplify cross-border claims against U.S. employers. Most Mexicans can't afford complex legal battles, and it's hard to find lawyers willing to file claims because state laws cap awards in work-injury cases.
To help those who return to Tampico, Father Payer wants to establish a mission for injured workers: "They need a place where they can tell their stories without being afraid of being bullied, so their cases can be documented and followed up."
Francisco Ruiz never expected to leave Tampico.
The son of a tailor, he quit school in the eighth grade to drive a taxi, sell tacos and keep the grounds at a cemetery.
At 19, he married and did well enough driving a truck to build a home for his family.
But when the Mexican economy stalled in the mid-1990s, Ruiz lost his job.
He was 36 on the day in July 1997 when he woke up thinking: "There isn't enough for the children."
Nothing in Tampico held the same promise as the United States.
On the day he left, his wife sprinkled him with holy water and hung a chain bearing the image of Mexico's revered Virgin of Guadalupe around his neck.
"It will just be one year," he told her.
He borrowed money and paid a smuggler $2,500 to get him from Tampico to Charlotte, where friends were getting work. North Carolina has experienced one of the nation's fastest growing populations of illegal immigrants, now estimated at 390,000 in the state and 12 million nationally.
Ruiz was captured the first time he floated across the Rio Grande into Texas. He went to jail, was dumped back into Mexico, then begged for money to travel to Matamoros, a town on the Texas' border, where he reconnected with the same smuggler who'd helped him try to cross the first time.
The second time, Ruiz made it. Vans and pickups arranged by the smuggler drove him 350 miles to Houston, then 1,000 miles more to Charlotte, the end of a journey that had taken a month.
When he got to North Carolina, Ruiz bought a Social Security card for $10. Soon, he was washing dishes at a sports bar, living with a friend and wiring money home.
Ruiz also sent home photos of himself looking thin but fit. On the back of one, he wrote to his 8-year-old daughter, Laura: "To my little girl, the most tiny and beautiful and pretty and exquisite and cute and endearing and darling baby ... I love you so much."
On Aug. 21, 1997, Ruiz got a second job. The Belk Masonry Co. offered him $300 a week to work as a laborer for a masonry crew. The boss checked his work papers but didn't call Social Security to verify his number.
Ruiz worked 12 hours a day, from 8 to 5 in construction, then from 7 to 11 washing dishes and cooking.
The routine lasted six weeks.
Ruiz still remembers nothing about Oct. 7, 1997.
The insurer said a crane hoisting Ruiz along with a load of bricks collapsed. He plunged at least 30 feet onto a concrete floor and was pelted with falling bricks.
He broke a rib and injured a kidney, and his right lung collapsed. He also hit his head on the floor, severely injuring his brain's frontal lobe, which controls language, memory and motor function.
Ruiz was in a coma, able to breathe only with a ventilator.
His younger brother, Jose, left his wife, two young children and his job in Mexico and rushed to Charlotte.
Ruiz's wife followed, with a temporary pass to enter the country, leaving her three children behind. When she arrived at Carolinas Medical Center, she found the Virgin of Guadalupe medal in her husband's hand.
Nurses were hoping for a miracle, but at Belk Masonry, a counterattack had begun.
The Companion Property & Casualty Insurance Co. paid his initial medical bills, but adjusters wanted to know all about Francisco Ruiz. When they discovered his illegal work status, they rejected his claim.
The law in North Carolina, as in most states, says that illegal immigrants who are hurt on the job are entitled to compensation. Companies, the law says, must pay injury benefits to "every person engaged in employment ... including aliens, and also minors, whether lawfully or unlawfully employed."
But officials at Companion Property & Casualty questioned the law's intent. Why should they pay an alien who lied about his immigration status to get his job? How could an illegal worker technically be considered an employee?
Those are questions insurers across the country still take to court.
"All this was still new" in the Carolinas, said Companion President Charles Potok. "The number of Mexicans and Hispanics was minimal, but we were starting to see this kind of claim. We thought that was a good case to test the precedent."
Only one significant case had touched on the issue in North Carolina, and the ruling hadn't settled the question of whether illegal workers were entitled to all the same benefits as other employees. So the state's insurers, like companies in many other states, were rejecting virtually all claims where they found illegal immigrants were involved.
Ruiz woke up after 14 days. He couldn't speak, walk or use the bathroom. He didn't recognize his wife or remember that he had children. His wife and the therapists began telling him stories, showing him photos and moving his muscles.
After two months in hospitals, doctors released Ruiz with orders for round-the-clock supervision. His wife had to return to their children in Tampico. So with his brother as his caretaker, Ruiz moved into a cramped apartment in Charlotte and began the most difficult stretch of his life.
Ruiz was like a toddler: He toppled over, couldn't dress himself and needed help regulating the temperature of his shower.
"He drops food, bites his tongue and lips," said his brother, Jose. "He forgets about almost everything. There's nothing he can do by himself."
Jose once found the stove in the apartment turned on and decided his brother "can't be trusted by himself."
In a borrowed car, Jose hauled Ruiz to medical appointments. To speech therapy. To physical therapy. To the eye doctor, who found that the fall had damaged Ruiz's optic nerve.
Ruiz needed anti-depressants to curb his anger and anxiety. Previously mild-mannered, he now sparred with his brother, pounded his fist on the furniture and burst into laughter for no reason.
With no income, Jose went to work part-time at a restaurant, leaving Ruiz alone for hours, locked in the house in front of the TV.
Jose's income was divided between the two brothers and their families. Local charities delivered food.
Back in Tampico, Ruiz's wife, Emilia, said, "We didn't have enough to eat. I would eye the chicken, but we couldn't afford it."
Four months after his fall, Charlotte physician James McDeavitt declared that Francisco Ruiz had reached "maximum medical improvement." He was permanently disabled and wasn't employable.
The state ordered Companion Property & Casualty to pay Ruiz two-thirds of his salary—$200 a week—while he was out of work and the dispute made its way to court.
For the next four years, Ruiz and his family survived on his $800 a month. Ruiz kept $100 for himself, paid his lawyer $200 and sent the rest home.
"He is concerned over finances for his family," one case manager wrote for the state's workers' comp board. "He feels his mind is coming back as he is able to remember seasons, time and other important things ... (a relief because) he was the one who helped the children with homework."
Although Ruiz's mind improved, he remained unfit even for sedentary work, with limited concentration and the use of only one arm.
He grew desperate to see his family. He agonized that his parents or one of his children might die.
He begged his lawyer, Stefan Latorre of Charlotte, to settle the claim. "Just get me $50,000 and I'll go home," he'd say.
Companion Property & Casualty is offering nothing, Latorre explained.
"Starving them out" is what Latorre calls the strategy he says insurance companies use to break workers' spirit. He's seen hundreds of illegal immigrants "settle for pennies," he said, because they can't endure the seemingly endless legal proceedings.
Insurers across the country use the tactic, experts say.
Workers' compensation isn't supposed to work this way. It was intended to assign no blame for injuries and to quickly pay workers a moderate amount while protecting employers from runaway jury awards.
Most claims involve paying only workers' medical bills. In more serious cases, companies pay two-thirds of workers' wages while they're out of work. If injuries are permanent, a company or its insurer must pay an amount set by the state.
If you lose an arm in North Carolina, for example, companies pay two-thirds of your wages for 240 weeks. That's $320 a week for someone who makes $25,000 a year.
The biggest payouts go to people such as Ruiz, who can't work again. Still, the most he could hope for was $200 a week until he dies, or about $343,000 if he lived to be 75.
Ruiz got one chance for an early settlement.
During state-mandated mediation, he asked for $650,000 to cover his lost income and the cost of a caretaker.
Companion Property & Casualty refused.
Latorre says he still remembers what the company told him: "We will never pay a dime ..."
It took five years for the dispute to reach North Carolina's highest court.
Companion Property & Casualty lost the first round in 1999 and was ordered to pay Ruiz $200 a week for the remainder of his life, plus medical bills, plus the big-ticket cost of a caretaker earning at least $128 a day.
It would be "repugnant," the court said, for a company that benefited from a worker's labor not to pay him for an injury. Whether the worker was illegal didn't matter.
A year passed.
Companion lost the second round in 2000, when the North Carolina Industrial Commission upheld the initial order.
The company appealed again.
By now, three years after he was injured, Ruiz was fed up.
He took a huge risk and went home to Mexico to visit.
The trip was against his lawyers' advice. If Ruiz couldn't sneak back into America, a task that was sure to be harder because of his disabilities, his case might fizzle.
When Ruiz reached Tampico, he said, he found that "my children had grown up without me. The little girl I left had become a young woman."
For nearly a year, his family cared for a man it barely recognized.
When it was time to return, Ruiz phoned his smuggler. This time, he explained, he had special needs.
At the Matamoros-Brownsville border, someone pulled Ruiz across the Rio Grande on an inner tube. Then he limped arm-in-arm with a guide over a mile of rough terrain to a truck.
Companion lost Round Three, too. The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected the company's argument that federal law prohibiting illegal immigrants from working in the United States nullified state laws that allow those workers to collect injury benefits.
The purpose of workers' compensation, the court said, "is to compel industry to take care of its own wreckage."
Companion appealed to the state Supreme Court. In 2002—five years after his battle began—the court refused to review the appeals court's decision.
Ruiz had won.
It took another year to settle the case.
In the end, Ruiz got $438,000.
The company was disappointed, but not surprised, by the ruling.
"We're always viewed as the deep pocket," Companion's Potok said. "If you're talking about paying somebody or cutting someone off cold, we typically lose."
Francisco Ruiz is back in Tampico, living in the same house on a dirt road with his wife and three children.
His eldest, Bety, is married and has a daughter who lives there, too. Laura is in nursing school, and Francisco Jr. is finishing high school.
Ruiz bought a taxicab, which he rents out to make a little money.
He can't drive or cook or climb his narrow spiral staircase.
Now 46, he walks slowly, with a cane, his left leg kicking out with each step. His left arm rests at his waist, and his left shoulder hurts. He sometimes forgets plans he made, and he's quick to lose his temper.
When Laura describes her father's demanding demeanor, Ruiz hangs his head. Her words make him feel "very bad," he says.
He aches to play soccer again, or to run, or just to walk with his granddaughter in the surf at Miramar Beach.
Still, he says: "Thank God, we're back together and have a little bit of money. That's all that makes one happy ... their family."
His fight changed the legal landscape for other illegal workers in North Carolina and may influence other states still debating their laws.
His ordeal, though, didn't tarnish America's appeal.
Ruiz's son-in-law is now in Charlotte, working illegally at a fast-food restaurant and living in a neighborhood where he was once robbed at gunpoint. He has bullet holes in his car to prove it. At 22, he hasn't seen his daughter in two years.
"When I wake up in the morning I say, `Lord, please take care of my family, and take care of me too,'" the young man says. "If something happens to me, I know my family is going to lose everything, and I don't want them to have bad news."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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