NEW ORLEANS — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating allegations that the immigration arrest of a construction worker hurt in the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in New Orleans was retaliation for his reports about problems at the site, one of his attorneys said Monday.
Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma of Honduras was arrested by immigration authorities two days after the Oct. 12 collapse that killed three people and injured dozens more, Mary Yanik of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice said.
She said she believes the arrest was retaliation for his reports to a supervisor before the partial collapse and to reporters afterward.
Bryan Cox, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called such claims “outrageously irresponsible,” The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.
Immigration attorney Homero López Jr. said in an email that Ramirez Palma was moved last week to a facility at the Alexandria International Airport but has been at a facility in Jena since Friday.
“Alexandria is the last stop" — not a long-term immigration center but one that exists only for deportation, López said.
“The only reason Alexandria has an international airport is because ICE deports people from there," he wrote.
Yanik said she doesn’t know whether deportation has been deferred for Ramirez Palma, who has been fighting a deportation order since 2016. He had lost an appeal and applied this year to hold off execution of the deportation order. “It was denied in early October but he was not aware of that. He only became aware of that when he was arrested,” Yanik said.
Cox said in an email Monday that Ramirez Palma remains in custody: “We do not discuss future operations to protect operational security, but I will say that the rumors of his removal today are not accurate.”
Yanik said in an email that OSHA investigators have interviewed Ramirez Palma twice before.
“The first interview was an OSHA investigator generally looking into the Hard Rock collapse,” and the second was with an agency official and an attorney from the Labor Department’s regional solicitor's office in Dallas, she wrote. She said an investigator from OSHA’s whistleblower and retaliation division also planned an interview.
Ramirez Palma’s wife called her organization the day of his arrest, and the group sent his report to OSHA on Oct. 24, she said later.
His job was putting in window framing. He had told a supervisor more than five times before the collapse that his laser leveling tool showed the building tilted 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 centimeters), Yanik said.
She said his deportation would complicate the federal investigation into the collapse, keeping him out of further proceedings and silencing other workers and witnesses who are in the country without legal permission.
Ramirez Palma was arrested while fishing in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Federal wildlife agents asked for his fishing license and identification before summoning Border Patrol officers.
Cox told the newspaper the arrest had no connection to Ramirez Palma’s speaking out. He blamed any fear of coming forward on advocacy groups’ and critics’ claims of retaliation.
“The timing is extraordinarily suspicious and the circumstances of the arrest also show that the purported reason for the arrest was pretextual. He was arrested for fishing without a license but he had a valid fishing license,” Yanik said.
A lawsuit by Ramirez Palma and four other injured workers says the project’s developers and construction firms caused the collapse by using inadequate materials and supports.
Ramirez Palma’s wife said he’s worked in the area for nearly two decades and had complained before the collapse that the concrete floors were sagging, forcing him to double and triple-check measurements in the imbalanced building.