Analysis & Comment

Opinion | A Whistle-Blower, a Collapsed Hotel, an Imminent Deportation

In early October, a worker posted a video of a building under construction that looked like it was about to collapse. It was slated to be a Hard Rock Hotel, just off the French Quarter, its temporary beams bent under the weight of the floors above.

“It’s the best engineering,” the worker said sarcastically in Spanish.

A few days later, parts of the upper floors of the building crumbled, killing three workers and injuring more than 20 people. One of those injured was Delmer Joel Ramírez Palma, a metal worker who had repeatedly reported safety issues to supervisors.

But after talking to the media about the shoddy work conditions and filing a lawsuit with other workers seeking damages, he is now being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and set to be deported. This has become a pattern in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as across the country: I.C.E. is used a tool to insulate private development projects from labor and safety regulations.

After the hurricane, much of New Orleans’s black population, historically the bulk of the city’s working class, was forced out of the city in part by failed policies like the Road Home program. So Latinx migrants, a majority of whom were undocumented, filled this void. They made up nearly half of the rebuilding work force and performed risky tasks in toxic conditions like gutting houses, repairing roofs and collecting trash.

To supposedly boost reconstruction efforts, the administration of George W. Bush temporarily suspended federal statutes that would have protected workers’ health and wages. Around the same time, deportation rates in Louisiana rose significantly and continued under the Obama administration. That’s partly because I.C.E. has retaliated against people who have exposed civil rights abuses.

That happened in August 2011, when Latinx employees of Louisiana Home Elevations gathered in the parking lot of an apartment complex to resolve a payment dispute with their contractor. Instead of receiving the thousands of dollars they were due, I.C.E. and local law enforcement detained the workers in a violent raid.

The company was eventually convicted of money laundering. But the migrant workers faced the harshest punishment. Some of the workers were eventually deported. None received any of the $10,000-plus they were collectively owed.

Around that time, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor in the Obama administration reached an agreement that each agency must enforce labor law regardless of a worker’s immigration status. The agreement also specified that I.C.E. would continue to take into account whether it received tips that were called in by someone wanting to retaliate against workers who voiced their labor rights.

But the Trump administration has defied these protections, instead putting in place draconian policies meant to target vulnerable migrant workers. An executive order in 2017 directed agencies to “make use of all available systems and resources” to enforce immigration policy and it ordered I.C.E. to hire 10,000 officers and agents. Meanwhile, federal worker protection agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, remained understaffed, even though worker deaths are at a 10-year high.

This was the lead-up to the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel.

An exposé on the incident shows how collusion between developers and federal agencies exacerbated this disaster. The construction company in charge of the project made headlines in 2013 after a New Orleans-area home it was working on collapsed, injuring several immigrant workers. The company changed its name but faced no major repercussions and continued to take on structurally unsound construction projects.

Two days after the building fell, the whistle-blower, Delmer Joel Ramírez Palma, was fishing in a suburb of New Orleans when the Fish and Wildlife Service stopped him for not having a license and turned him over to the Border Patrol. Now he’s set to be deported. This overreach echoes the demands of Trump administration’s 2017 executive order. Mr. Ramírez’s lawyer claims his arrest was connected to the media interview and the lawsuit seeking damages. I.C.E. denies this.

It’s clear that prioritizing immigration enforcement over workplace safety enables risk and corruption. Washington must protect all workers regardless of immigration status. Developers should be regulated to ensure worker safety. And, in New Orleans, a city set to experience increasingly dangerous hurricanes and subsequent rebuilding under a climate in crisis, the government must protect the people who help rebuild it.

Deniz Daser (@dddaser) is a visiting research associate at Rutgers University. Sarah Fouts (@sbfouts) is an assistant professor in American Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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