County worker rehired after turning in alien Arbitrator's decision hailed by opponents of illegal immigration

August 15, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

An independent arbitrator has ordered county officials in central California to reinstate a clerical worker who was fired for turning in an illegal immigrant -- a father who had not been paying child support -- to U.S. immigration authorities.

The case is the first known instance nationwide in which a government employee sought protection for informing on an illegal immigrant under a 1996 federal law that overrides local "no-tell" rules -- adopted by many cities with large immigrant populations -- restricting police and other workers from informing the Immigration and Naturalization Service about suspected illegal immigrants.

Anti-immigration activists hailed the decision as having "far-reaching" significance in protecting government workers who share information with the INS.

But independent experts downplayed the significance. Unlike certain court decisions, arbitration rulings are not precedent-setting or binding in other cases, though other arbitrators may refer to them for guidance, noted David Feller, former president of the National Academy of Arbitrators and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

In the decision, an arbitrator directed the San Joaquin County district attorney's office to reinstate Tamara L. Lowe to her position as a $27,000-a-year office assistant in the family support division. Lowe, 38, was fired a year ago for violating privacy rules by alerting the Border Patrol when an illegal immigrant -- who was also a convicted heroin smuggler -- was due in her office for an appointment about support payments to his children.

"It is difficult for the average person to comprehend that the chief law enforcement officer in the county instructs its employees to ignore criminal behavior they observe," wrote veteran arbitrator Norman Brand, who ordered Lowe reinstated with full back pay and benefits.

Activists who want to curb immigration embraced Lowe's case and cast her as a kind of martyr -- though Lowe herself was not active in immigration issues before being fired.

"For too long, state agencies have served to obstruct and neglect their proper roles in assisting federal agencies that carry out immigration law enforcement," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which paid Lowe's legal bills.

Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, lambasted the arbitrator's decision as a step backward. Validating Lowe's actions, critics say, will cause many frightened immigrants in California's Central Valley and elsewhere to spurn contacts with police departments, hospitals, schools and and other institutions.

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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