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 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. Ramírez has a deportation order from 2016 and filed for a stay of deportation earlier this year.
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. An attorney for Ramírez says OSHA is looking into his arrest.
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.
Aggressive enforcement of immigration laws obstructs the protection of all workers, documented and undocumented alike. That’s why, on Nov. 21, Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the 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 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.
Michael Felsen, a retired Department of Labor attorney, wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.