ICE Deports ‘Crucial Witness’ in New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel Collapse

Photo: EMILY KASK/30238387A /AFP via Getty Images

On October 13, in the southwest corner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, the upper eight floors of a Hard Rock Hotel construction site collapsed, killing three and wounding 30. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the New Orleans Police Department investigate the cause of the partial collapse — and as developers seek to limit their liability — a construction worker who reported safety issues on the site on multiple occasions has been deported by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

On November 29, 38-year-old Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, who was injured in the collapse when he jumped from the eighth to the seventh floor, was deported to his native Honduras. Though ICE asserts that Ramirez Palma’s deportation was in-process prior to October, his immigration lawyer Homero Lopez described the timing as “definitely suspicious.” Two days after the hotel’s terrifying fall, Ramirez Palma was ticketed by US Fish and Wildlife Service officers in a wildlife refuge north of New Orleans for fishing without a license, before being turned over to Border Patrol for arrest. (His deportation was first ordered by a federal judge in 2016, but he was able to stay because he proved that his removal would cause harm to a U.S. citizen, his son.) In a complaint filed with the Department of Labor, another lawyer for Ramirez Palma wrote that on the day of his arrest, he was told not to attend a company meeting in which his employer discussed financial compensation for the accident.

Prior to his deportation, Ramirez Palma was expected to play a major role in the investigation into accountability for the collapse, as he had expressed safety concerns on multiple occasions during his three months on the job site. According to a CNN interview with Ramirez Palma’s lawyer Mary Yanik, his supervisors told him that “if he didn’t want to do the work, then they would find others to do it.”

“He interpreted this as meaning that he would be fired,” Yanik said, adding that this was said to other workers as well…

Ramirez Palma began noticing “unusually large” discrepancies during the construction of the building, Yanik said. In his 17 years as a construction worker, Ramirez Palma has seen floor measurements that were off between .75 and 1.25 inches off, but at the Hard Rock he noticed measurements off by 2 inches, Yanik said.

“Mr. Ramirez Palma specifically raised the alarm about the building not being level various times, on more than 5 different occasions,” Yanik said, adding her client was told to get back to work.

According to the complaint, the day before the collapse, Ramirez Palma was working on the 14th floor and noticed the floor shifting like a small earthquake.

“He also noticed the laser measurements show the laser visibly moving from the markings 2 to 3 inches up and down, showing that the building was moving,” according to the complaint.

After the collapse, workers approached Ramirez Palma crying and told Ramirez Palma that he was right about the building being dangerous with several supervisors were within earshot, Yanik said.

And according to the Washington Post, the ICE action also violates an Obama-era agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department in which “ICE is not supposed to arrest workers who are involved in disputes that are being investigated by the Labor Department.”

After Ramirez Palma was detained, Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, wrote to the Department of Homeland Security requesting that ICE pause Ramirez Palma’s removal from the country, calling him a “crucial witness” to the investigation. “In the aftermath of a disaster of this scale, the public needs all available information to understand what happened at the worksite, including information from Mr. Ramirez Palma and workers like him who witnessed safety violations before the collapse,” Dejoie wrote. “The investigations will undoubtedly suffer.” So too will safety at future job sites if potential undocumented whistle-blowers are deterred by the example of Ramirez Palma; undocumented workers represent 15 percent of those employed in the construction industry.

ICE Deports ‘Crucial Witness’ in New Orleans Hotel Collapse