OP-ED: Immigrant worker deportations hurt us all

Michael Felsen
Tribune News Service
The Hard Rock Hotel partially collapsed onto Canal Street downtown New Orleans, Louisiana on October 12, 2019. One person died and at least 18 others were injured Saturday when the top floors of a New Orleans hotel that was under construction collapsed, officials said.
The New Orleans fire department received reports at 9:12am local time that the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown New Orleans had collapsed. (Photo by Emily Kask/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

On Oct. 12, construction worker Delmer Joel Ramírez Palma was working on the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans when the structure collapsed, killing three workers and injuring dozens of others. He survived a fall of three flights by swinging on a rope, although he sustained serious injuries.

Ramírez, who has lived in the New Orleans area for 18 years, had, prior to the building’s collapse, raised safety concerns with his supervisor, including the apparent sagging of concrete floors. Immediately following the collapse, he was interviewed by the Spanish-language media outlet Jambalaya News.

Two days later, Ramírez’s world came crashing down again. While on a recuperative fishing trip with his family in Louisiana’s Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, he was approached by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers and asked to produce a fishing license, which he did.

Ramírez was then asked for a driver’s license, which he didn’t have. The officers then summoned Border Patrol agents, who placed him under arrest.

Like many undocumented workers, Ramírez has an outstanding deportation order. But he filed for a stay of deportation earlier this year and has been regularly reporting to ICE. Now he is in custody, slated for impending deportation.

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There’s something seriously wrong here. Even if Ramírez’s arrest has no relation to his complaints to management about the building’s condition or his comments to the press, he is an important witness to this tragic event. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, is investigating the collapse, to determine whether safety violations occurred, and if so, which parties should be held accountable.

Ramírez’s advocates are warning that whisking him away will have an undeniable chilling effect on the other workers at the Hard Rock Hotel work site. The workers are painfully aware that Ramírez spoke out, and is now facing deportation — a fate they understandably fear could be theirs if they similarly come forward with information.

There are an estimated 8 million immigrant workers in the U.S. without proper work authorization. They routinely suffer employers’ threats to “call ICE” if they dare raise a safety concern or assert their right to minimum wage or overtime pay. Consequently, violations of their rights under these federal worker protection laws — which don’t condition protection on documented status — remain hidden. That allows exploitation of these workers to continue and unsafe conditions like those at the Hard Rock Hotel to go unreported.

This can also affect workers without immigration concerns. When they see their co-workers deported or threatened into silence, the broader message of intimidation isn’t hard to detect.

Aggressive enforcement of our immigration laws obstructs the protection of all workers, documented and undocumented alike. That’s why, on Nov. 21, Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the POWER (Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation) Act. It provides new protections for undocumented workers, and thus helps ensure that enforcement of federal immigration policy doesn’t undermine all workers’ basic job-related rights. It deserves bipartisan support.

In the meantime, we need workers like Ramírez to speak out about potentially unsafe and unlawful conditions at work, without fear of deportation. And we need the government to recognize how important that is, for the benefit of all workers, regardless of immigration status.

— Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Mass., retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.