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Construction Use of Illegal Workers Spotlighted in New Orleans Hotel Collapse

Sometimes it takes a major catastrophe to shine the light on shoddy practices, bad construction, bad decisions and, further up the line, bad policies that have led to the moment of collapse.

In one case, the partial collapse of the under-construction Hard Rock flagged Hotel in New Orleans, lots of questionable decisions and practices likely led to the moment of collapse of the build that killed 3 and injured over 30 on that fateful Saturday morning.

The spotlight has been shined on several of those practices and as the forensics team continues to review the events leading up to the incident and interview witnesses among the 100 plus workers who were on the build that morning, the spotlight swept across the story of Delmer Joel Rameriz Palma, one of the construction workers who was injured in the collapse and whose story has become a “cause” among the activist supporters of the immigrant community in New Orleans and around the country as we outlined in our postscript a week or so ago.

His story illustrates something going on at virtually every construction site across the US, the use of illegal immigrant labor by many GCs and subs on all types of builds in every major city. More prevalent on residential and multifamily projects, but also evident on commercial and institutional projects as well.

Not that this practice is new, it has been going on around the globe since ancient cities and monuments were built by the prisoners captured by conquering armies, but today, in the light of pro and anti-immigration policies in the cities, states and national level it is an issue of discussion once again in the forefront of politics and the media.

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005 when New Orleans was devastated and in need of workers to help rebuild the houses, apartments, schools, shopping and commercial sectors of the city. The political leaders of New Orleans, in a move to attract immigrant workers, declared New Orleans a “Sanctuary City” meaning that city officials and parish and city law enforcement would not cooperate with ICE or other federal agencies who were actively working to capture and deport illegals.

After the US economic collapse in 2006, the situation in New Orleans and other cities got even worse. Thousands of skilled workers left the construction industry. Illegals, however, continued to work, either “day work” or for cash, to support their families in the US and back home. They were glad to have the work and even though they were not given any overtime, benefits, insurance or other benefits they showed up to work the builds. (This has been the pattern in the US for the last 150 years plus.)

Let’s take a closer look at Rameriz Palma’s case and what it illustrates about the situation swirling around the immigration issue in the US.

Rameriz Palma, according to reporters, had lived and worked in New Orleans since migrating there 18 years ago in 2001. He is married and has 3 children that he has supported, like many of his fellow Hondurans and other illegals, in the construction sector. He was an illegal immigrant, but contractors and subs hired him and taught him the business. At the time of the collapse, he was at work setting windows using a laser level in the doomed building as the floors above him were being poured.

The articles we have read, do not outline the other projects that Rameriz Palma worked on, but he had obviously worked on a number of projects in a variety of roles, likely all for cash or misclassified as an independent contractor.

In this particular case, he had been working on this build and had noted that there was some “shoddy construction” going on. In fact, it is reported in the Guardian and other publications that, he told his supervisors that the floors were out of line and that they deflected as much as 2” exceeding the normal slope that he had seen on other projects.

According to reports, he took pictures on his phone of some of the irregularities including temporary scaffolding that was bending under excess weight from the floors above. He also told his wife that he was worried about his safety and the safety of his fellow workers. His supervisors supposedly listened and then sent him back on the floor to continue his work.

When the build collapsed, he escaped, but he was injured and sent to the hospital where the docs patched him up told him to take a few weeks off to recover from his head injuries. According to several sources, he was interviewed by the OSHA investigators after the collapse as part of the forensics to see what had happened.

A few days later, he was apprehended by ICE after Fish and Wildlife found that he had a fishing license, but no driver’s license. He also had an outstanding issue since 2016 when a judge ruled that he was in the country illegally. He had appealed for additional deferrals, but none the less was illegal and ICE took him to a holding facility and ultimately deported him back to Honduras.

The  New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) has reported that The Action Network has joined them to issue a letter appeal to the Secretary of Labor Eugen Scalia to bring Ramirez Palma back to the US in order for him to cooperate with OSHA investigators.

There are claims that Ramirez Palma was interviewed three times as a “Whistleblower” while he was in ICE custody prior to his deportation on the 2016 judicial decision.

Whether Rameriz Palma is returned to the US as part of the investigation of the New Orleans collapse is “up in the air” but the campaign to “Bring Home Delmer” is attempting to do just that and to reunite Ramirez Palma with his family in the New Orleans area.

This particular case touches on a number of the current issues in the immigration debate – contractors and subs hiring illegals to work on their projects, sanctuary cities and the conflicting policies between federal enforcement officials and locals, deferrals from deportation, OSHA injury issues and enforcement and ultimately the need for Congress to address immigration policy in a way that provides for an immigrant workforce to help address the growing labor shortages in the US.

We will keep an eye on this particular case as the damaged Hard Rock Hotel structure is fully demolished in 2020 and the bodies of two of Rameriz Palma’s co-workers are recovered for their families. The final report of the causes of the collapse will not be known for some time, but you can bet that the use of illegal immigrants on construction jobsites will continue to be an issue until Congress finds the political will to make changes to the immigration laws of the country.