We have a very well-known and deadly problem in this country: Immigrant workers -- especially undocumented immigrant workers -- get injured and killed on the job at a much higher rate than native-born workers.
Part of the problem is lack of training; they're not aware of many of the hazards and they don't know about OSHA standards. But even when they know the work is dangerous and know that they can call OSHA, they're generally reluctant to complain. Partly it's fear of getting fired. But it's also because in their country of origin, there is often a great (and justified) mistrust of government officials.
For undocumented workers it's even worse. They're afraid OSHA inspectors will turn them in to immigration authorities, even though OSHA and immigrant worker support groups have gone to great lengths to assure immigrant workers that they have nothing to fear from calling OSHA.
Apparently all for naught.
Last week federal immigration officials took into custody dozens of undocumented workers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ukraine at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. How did they lure them into the trap? None of your business, says the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "We're not going to discuss how we do our business," Sue Brown, an immigration and customs spokeswoman in Atlanta, said last Thursday.
However, Allen McNeely, head of the state Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health division, said the workers were lured into the arrest by a flier announcing a mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Administration meeting.The ICE, which made the raid, was carved out of the old Immigration and Naturalization service and is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The ICE's mission, according to their webpage is "To prevent acts of terrorism by targeting the people, money, and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities."
McNeely said one of the contractors who employed the immigrants faxed him a copy of the flier. It is printed in English and Spanish. It tells all contract workers to attend an OSHA briefing at the base theater and promises free coffee and doughnuts.
McNeely said that neither his division nor the federal OSHA was involved in the arrests. He said the trick has eroded trust between the Labor Department and the workers it is trying to keep safe.
In recent years, the Labor Department has made an effort to reach out to the state's thousands of immigrant workers, especially those in construction, because they are among the most likely to be killed or injured at work.
"We are dealing with a population of workers who need to know about safety," McNeely said. "Now they're going to identify us as entrappers."
The feds were completely unapologetic:
"Federal immigration officials say they have the right to round up illegal immigrants in any manner they see fit -- even if it means impersonating Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials."
On the WRAL-TV show "Headline Saturday," U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Candelmo said they couldn't comment on how those particular immigrants were taken into custody. But they said it's important to find ways to round up groups of suspects without causing chaos. That sometimes requires undercover tactics, they said.
"We have to protect the ability of law enforcement to use undercover operations," said Whitney.
But at what price?
UPDATE: ICE statement on the arrests here.
- Immigrant Workers: Chew 'em Up, Spit 'em Out & Kill 'em, But Don't Pay Their Comp!, March 21, 2005
- Immigrant Worker Fatalities: The Facts, July 14, 2004
- What is OSHA Doing About Immigrant Worker Safety?, April 13, 2004