ICE de­ports ‘cru­cial witness’ in Hard Rock Ho­tel col­lapse

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Derek Hawkins and Kim Bell­ware

WASH­ING­TON — A metal worker con­sid­ered a “cru­cial witness” in the col­lapse at the Hard Rock Ho­tel con­struc­tion site in New Or­leans in Oc­to­ber 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 18story 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.

Days be­fore Palma’s de­por­ta­tion, the sec­re­tary of the Louisiana Work­force Com­mis­sion asked the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, which over­sees ICE, to re­lease Palma.

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.”

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AP

A con­struc­tion worker who sur­vived the col­lapse of the Hard Rock Ho­tel’s con­struc­tion site in Oc­to­ber in New Or­leans was de­ported Fri­day to his na­tive Hon­duras.

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