I sat in downtown Hannibal, MO, a few weeks ago waiting on a client. I had asked her to meet me at a coffee shop downtown near the river. We would then travel a few blocks to the Marion County Courthouse for a wrongful death hearing regarding the death of her husband. Two children, ages four and seven, would not be present. You will not know her name and you will not know her husband’s name and you will not know her children’s name. She is undocumented. She is from Mexico.
Some time ago, I received a call from a friend of mine who is a local attorney here. He informed me that a friend of his had a friend who had passed away as a result of the fall while working. He asked if I would be willing to assist on the case and speak to the wife. I said certainly but it didn’t really make any sense. How could someone die from a fall while working on a farm? How far was this fall? These questions would later be answered with complete certainty. The man, an immigrant from Mexico, who had been here more than 15 years, fell while working on a ladder which caused a traumatic injury to his brain and his subsequent death. Despite several requests by the man to his employer for additional help, the employer refused. The man, being undocumented, dared not report this to OSHA or anyone else. He left behind his small children and his wife. They are in rural Missouri and they know no one.
I finally spoke to the young widow. She’d been trying to negotiate a settlement with workers’ compensation insurance company. She had no idea that she had a right to an attorney to assist her with all of this. The insurance company never told her. The employer never told her. She’d also been denied her husband’s life insurance that he had been paying for every month for the last 15 years because they couldn’t verify his Social Security number. The life insurance company has refused to return the premiums that he paid as well as the returns on the premiums that it obtained using his money for investments. Money he paid for a benefit that it now claims doesn’t exist. That would be another fight.
I got into the case and, long story short, we negotiated a settlement which my client is happy about. It will help take care of her and her children in her husband’s absence. But that is not the point of the story. I have never met a client more scared and more fearful exercise a right to recovery under the law. I’ve never met a client who is more respectful, polite and honest (her text messages always start with “Sir”). At the hearing in front of the judge to approve the settlement, my client was shaking. She had a continual soft, slow stream of tears down the corners of her eyes. She had brought every piece of documentation she could find just in case she was to be questioned about who she was, why she was here and what she expected. At one point, she refused to go to the courthouse because she was afraid that because she didn’t have a driver’s license, the sheriff would take her into custody, away from her children and send her back to Mexico. I could see the terror and fear in her eyes when the judge asked her if she planned on moving from the state and where to. She looked at me as if to say “Why does he need this information? What is he going to do with it? Where’s he going to send it? Are they going to come after me?” Despite my continued insistence that she has nothing to worry about, that nothing bad will happen, that I promise I will do everything I can to prevent this from happening, she still had difficulty trusting me. This woman has never taken a single government benefit, food stamp, free medical care, Medicaid or anything else. She and her husband have paid taxes on their earnings out of every single paycheck they’ve ever received. They’ve done everything that’s been asked of them. These are people that we should want.
This is a woman that is a benefit to us. This is a woman that makes this country better, that makes her community better. How do we find and keep people like my client? I don’t know and I don’t know who does. And that is what scares me.