ICE deports 'crucial witness' in Hard Rock Hotel collapse
By DEREK HAWKINS AND KIM BELLWARE | The Washington Post | Published: November 30, 2019
A metal worker considered a "crucial witness" in the collapse at the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in New Orleans last month was deported Friday to his native Honduras.
Lawyers for Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma said the 38-year-old may have been targeted for deportation because he voiced concerns about the project - a claim immigration officials have denied.
Palma escaped the 18-story structure by jumping between floors as the steel and concrete from the upper floors came crashing down around him. The Oct. 12 catastrophe left three workers dead and dozens of others injured.
Two days later, as he was recovering, federal immigration agents arrested Palma while he was fishing at a National Wildlife Refuge.
Palma was not authorized to work in the United States and had been fighting a removal order since 2016. He was scheduled to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in mid-November.
Palma, who worked construction in New Orleans for 17 years, had repeatedly reported safety issues at the Hard Rock site to supervisors and was always told to go back to work, according to his lawyers, who helped him file a complaint with the Labor Department.
The day before the collapse, his lawyers said, he told some of his co-workers that he noticed the floor underneath him was moving, as if being shaken in an earthquake. When they discussed what happened later, they were within earshot of several supervisors, according to his lawyers.
Shortly after the incident, Palma spoke in a video interview with a Spanish-language news outlet about the collapse and his escape, and joined a lawsuit with other injured workers against the contractors and developers.
After spending weeks at an ICE staging facility in Alexandria, Louisiana, Palma was put on a Friday morning deportation flight to Honduras, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox confirmed to The Washington Post on Saturday.
Cox called claims that Palma was targeted for speaking out about the conditions at the construction site "false" and "wildly irresponsible."
"Mr. Ramirez-Palma's latest application for a stay of removal had already been denied by ICE on Oct. 3, more than a week before the incident cited by his supporters," Cox said in an emailed statement.
The New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, which is assisting Palma with his labor case with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Friday that Palma's deportation "leaves every one of us less safe."
"The next time a building collapses, we will wonder if it could have been prevented if our federal agencies had prioritized answers and accountability for the survivors of the Hard Rock, we will wonder if the same bad actors are to blame, and we will wonder if potential whistleblowers kept silent because they saw what happened to Joel," the center's spokesman, Julien Burns, said in a statement to The Post.
Days before Palma's deportation, the secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission asked the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, to release Palma and stop his deportation proceedings.
In a letter to William P. Joyce, director of ICE's New Orleans field office, Secretary Ava Dejoie said Palma was a "crucial witness" in the ongoing investigation.
"His detention and pending deportation hamper the ongoing investigations," Dejoie wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Post. "If he is deported, the public may never know what key information is being deported with him. The investigations will undoubtedly suffer."
Agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service questioned Palma as he was fishing at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. When he was unable to show them a valid driver's license, they called Border Patrol agents, who arrested him.
Palma's deportation is a striking illustration of the Trump administration's aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants. In New Orleans, where the Latino population has more than doubled in the past two decades, activists and lawyers said they believe it has had a chilling effect on immigrant laborers, potentially discouraging them from cooperating with investigators, as The Post has reported.
Palma's arrest also raised questions about the status of a long-standing agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department. Under the agreement, which was crafted during the Obama administration, ICE is not supposed to arrest workers who are involved in disputes that are being investigated by the Labor Department.
The Washington Post's Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.