Growing up in Venezuela, Diego Rondon Ichikawa was well versed in the promise of America: work hard, make money and 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.
Interviewing a Mexican worker from a meat-processing plant in Mississippi last fall, he watched 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," said Rondon Ichikawa, who will graduate in May. "He felt like it was a mistake to move here, but he was trapped."
Recognizing Rondon 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 Rondon Ichikawa, will be based in Seattle and will assist workers in Washington 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 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.
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