On Oct. 12, construction worker Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma was working on the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans when the structure collapsed, killing three workers and injuring dozens more. He survived a fall of three flights by swinging on a rope, although he sustained serious injuries.
Ramirez, who has done construction work in the New Orleans area for 18 years, had on multiple occasions before the collapse raised safety concerns with his supervisor, including measurements showing that the building was not level. Immediately following the collapse, he was interviewed by the Spanish-language media outlet Jambalaya News.
Two days later, Ramirez's world came crashing down again. While on a recuperative fishing trip 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.
Ramirez was then asked for a driver's license, which he didn't have. The officers summoned Border Patrol agents, who placed him under arrest. Like many undocumented workers, Ramirez had an outstanding deportation order. He had been challenging that order, and he had been regularly reporting to ICE. But now, suddenly, he was in detention.
While in ICE custody, Ramirez - an important witness to this tragic event - was interviewed three times by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That agency is investigating the collapse, to determine whether safety violations occurred and, if so, which parties should be held accountable. It is also looking into whether Ramirez's arrest and detention relate to his complaints about the building's condition or his comments to the press. Retaliation, if it was involved, is illegal.
Ramirez, who is married with three children, spent Thanksgiving in ICE custody. The following day he was deported to his native Honduras.
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The secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission calls Ramirez a "crucial witness" in the ongoing investigation. His advocates and several public officials argue that whisking him away undeniably chills other workers at the Hard Rock Hotel work site. Those workers are painfully aware that Ramirez spoke out and was deported - 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 United States without proper work authorization. They routinely suffer employers' threats to "call ICE" if they raise safety concerns or assert their right to overtime pay. Consequently, violations of their rights under 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 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. 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 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 their immigration status.
Delmer Ramirez-Palma's deportation doesn't make America great. It makes us all less safe, less able to prevent the next Hard Rock-like tragedy. He deserves to be returned to this country, for the public good.
ABOUT THE WRITER
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.