Update, Nov. 29, 2019: Today ICE deported Joel Ramirez Palma to his native Honduras, rejecting his lawyers' request that he be allowed to stay in New Orleans as a potential witness in the investigation into what caused the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel on Oct. 12. A statement from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice calls the deportation a "shocking dereliction of the federal government's responsibility for worker safety that should concern every American."
NEW ORLEANS - Joel Ramirez Palma told his wife Tania that he thought the construction of the new Hard Rock Hotel on Canal Street wasn't going well.
Ramirez is an undocumented immigrant who's worked in New Orleans construction for 18 years. As a metal-worker, he specializes in the framing and structure of buildings. But when he started working this past summer at the hotel, he told Tania that the measurements he was taking didn't add up.
He said that the framework was uneven -- that it should have been level but was off by as much as 3 inches. He told Tania that he had complained to his supervisors about the problem five times and they ignored him.
Then, on October 12th, Ramirez heard the sound of metal crashing onto metal and he started to run. The upper floors of the hotel were starting to fall on top of each other. Ramirez said the stairs were jammed with other workers trying to get out, so he jumped from the 14th floor to the 13th, and made his way down to the 8th floor where he jumped to the 7th. After that, all he remembered was waking up with a feeling that he couldn't breathe, while someone gave him water.
Still, Ramirez recovered enough that day to answer a few questions from a local Spanish-language newspaper reporter. He said he didn't know what had caused the collapse but he was grateful to God to survive it. He didn't mention the name of the contractor, and he didn't complain about the construction to the reporter. He simply said that he and his co-workers were glad to be alive. At the time, he didn't know that three of them had been killed.
Two days later, Border Patrol agents arrested Ramirez and turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His lawyers say he's locked up in an ICE detention center near Alexandria, and that his deportation is imminent.
Acting Press Secretary for the regional office of ICE, Bryan Cox, says Ramirez had simply exhausted his appeals to stay in the country on October 3-- nine days before the Hard Rock Hotel collapse.
But Ramirez' lawyers claim ICE is under pressure to deport him because he was a whistleblower-- a claim that Cox adamantly denies.
Ramirez' immigration lawyer, Homero Lopez, says that Ramirez doesn't want to be deported- obviously- but that he doesn't want Lopez to file an appeal for him to stay, either.
Lopez says Ramirez is in terrible pain from an eye injury and doesn't want to languish in jail. Tania says a piece of fiberglass fell into her husband's eye while he was working on another job-- for the same contractor he complained about at the Hard Rock Hotel.
The hotel's developer, 1031 Canal Street Development, LLC., has not responded to WGNO's questions about the construction.