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Whistleblower in New Orleans hotel collapse is deported to Honduras
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Courtesy: Lauren Zanolli | News Source:

A Honduran construction worker injured during the Hard Rock hotel collapse in New Orleans was deported by US immigration authorities on Friday, his lawyers confirmed.

Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma had reported potentially dangerous lapses in construction safety to his supervisors before the collapse, according to lawyers working on his immigration case and a civil complaint filed by Ramirez Palma and several other workers against hotel developers.

The collapse on 12 October killed three people and injured dozens. The bodies of two victims are still inside the half-crumbled remains of the 18-storey structure in downtown New Orleans. Developers are working with city officials to finalise plans to demolish the rest of the building.

Immediately after the accident, Ramirez Palma was interviewed by the local Spanish-language media outlet Jambalaya News. Two days later he was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), while fishing with his family in a national wildlife refuge, because he lacked identification documents.

The timing and circumstances of his October arrest raised suspicions among his lawyers and advocates that his detainment was connected to the hotel collapse and his previous safety complaints. The arrest and planned deportation drew widespread criticism from immigration advocates and some state officials in Louisiana.

King Company, Ramirez Palma’s supervising company at the Hard Rock site, did not respond to interview requests from the Guardian.

Mary Yanick, a senior lawyer at the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group, said Ramirez Palma had been interviewed by the whistleblower division of the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) on Monday. Osha and the New Orleans police department are investigating the hotel collapse.

Osha did not respond to a request for comment on Ramirez Palma’s role in the investigation.

This week Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC), also advocated for Ramirez Palma’s release, citing his role in the Hard Rock investigation and, more generally, the need to protect whistleblowers from retribution. The LWC is responsible for enforcing labor laws in the state.

In a 27 November letter addressed to William P Joyce, the New Orleans field office director of Ice, Dejoie implored the agency to release Ramirez Palma, stay his deportation and “commit to neutrality in ongoing labor investigations for all witnesses and victims”. The letter was seen by the Guardian.

“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. “If he is deported, the public may never know what key information is being deported with him. The investigations will undoubtedly suffer.”

As of Friday afternoon she had not received a response to the letter. Ice representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Ramirez Palma’s case.

Ramirez Palma’s lawyers previously believed he would be deported earlier in the week but that was delayed until today for unknown reasons. In 2016 a judge ordered he be deported. He had been regularly checking in with Ice since then and filed for a stay of deportation during 2019, Yanick said.

A citizen of Honduras, Ramirez Palma had lived with his wife and three children in New Orleans for 18 years. His lawyers and wife said he was seriously injured in the Hard Rock collapse and was briefly hospitalised for head trauma, internal inflammation and an acute eye injury that still requires surgery.

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