Law school names Leadership for Justice fellow

(March 12, 2013) Growing up in Venezuela, Diego Rondón Ichikawa ‘13 was well-versed in the promise of America – work hard, make money, get ahead in life. But later, as an immigrant himself and a student at Seattle University School of Law, he discovered a persistent and humiliating obstacle many immigrants face when pursuing the American dream — wage theft.

Mararet FisherInterviewing a Mexican worker from a meat processing plant in Mississippi last fall, Rondón Ichikawa remembers watching the man break down in tears as he described the abuse he and his wife endured, and the money he earned but was never paid. “He had this sense of helplessness,” Rondon Ichikawa said. “He felt like it was a mistake to move here, but he was trapped.”

Recognizing Rondón Ichikawa’s commitment to ending wage theft, Seattle University School of Law has awarded him the 2013 Leadership for Justice Fellowship. This one-year, $55,000 award will allow him to continue his work with the National Employment Law Project, which spearheaded the Mississippi project.

“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity,” he said. “I wanted to work in public interest law, but it’s so hard to find jobs in that sector. Now I’ll be able to do the work I love.”

Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the Northwest to offer a post-graduate fellowship for an alumnus to work with an organization on a specific social justice project.

The Wage Justice Project, conceived by Rondón Ichikawa, will be based in Seattle and will assist workers in Washington State and around the country through coalition and capacity-building, community education, strategic litigation, and policy and legislative advocacy.

“Diego has already been a true leader for social justice within the school,” said Dean Mark C. Niles, adding that his project was selected, in part, for its great potential to have a systemic impact on the local community and in the national policy sphere as well. “We’re also excited about the range of opportunities to engage students, local partners and volunteer attorneys in his work.”

Common examples of wage theft include workers paid less than minimum wage, denial of overtime pay, being forced to work off the clock, being wrongly classified as an independent contractor and, in some cases, not getting paid at all.

“It’s so frustrating to talk to these employers, because they know they’re breaking the law. They know they owe their workers this money,” Rondón Ichikawa said. “But they feel like they can get away with it because the workers are so afraid of deportation.”

As an Asian Latino immigrant himself, Rondón Ichikawa felt drawn to the cause because immigrants are often the victims of wage theft. Other targeted groups include women and people of color. And while wage theft occurs across the economic spectrum, it’s particularly devastating for low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck — day laborers, domestic workers, construction workers and janitors, as well as those who work in factories, manufacturing, and warehouses.

He’s also particularly well-suited to work with immigrants because he speaks four languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.

Now is a particularly crucial time to attack wage theft in Washington. A bill is pending in the state legislature that would address the problem of misclassifying workers as independent contractors (denying them medical benefits, overtime and other employment protection). Part of Rondón Ichikawa’s work will include lobbying on behalf of that bill, fighting legal challenges and organizing workers to testify in Olympia.

Also, in 2011, the city of Seattle passed an ordinance allowing for revocation of business licenses and criminal prosecution of companies that commit wage theft, but has yet to prosecute a single case. Rondón Ichikawa hopes to identify test cases during his fellowship year by reaching out to unions and labor lawyers.

His three years as a Seattle University law student leave him well-equipped for the challenges ahead: He wrote legal analysis memos while on a summer program with the state Attorney General’s office and currently drafts bench memos in complex areas of law and reviews briefs for Justice Debra Stephens at the Washington Supreme Court.

Rondón Ichikawa also plans to spend his fellowship year continuing advocacy work he started as a student — community education, teaching workers how to file complaints and liens with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries, as well as organizing direct action efforts to protest belligerent employers.

Rondón Ichikawa’s family moved to the United States in 2000, when he was 14. Ever since then, he’s felt passionate about protecting the rights of other immigrants and is currently pursuing U.S. citizenship. “I count my blessings,” he said. “My father worked hard to have the things we had. Other people shouldn’t be shut out from that same opportunity.”