Immigration Agents, Posing as OSHA Trainers, Arrest Workers

It was exactly what many undocumented immigrant workers fear when they show up for safety training sessions offered by OSHA. Dozens of workers were arrested in a sting operation targeting unauthorized contract workers in North Carolina by luring them to a mandatory safety training meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents posing as OSHA trainers.

OSHA and the U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) have placed a tremendous emphasis in recent years on reducing occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities among immigrant and Spanish-speaking workers by offering training to these workers, and the DOL is not pleased these efforts have been undermined.

"We work hard to build trust with immigrant workers, including Hispanic workers, through numerous efforts that are successful in greatly improving their health and safety in the workplace. This is not something we were involved in and we do not condone the use of OSHA's name in this type of activity," said Pamela Groover, DOL spokesperson.

Special agents from ICE, in conjunction with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, the Social Security Office of the Inspector General and the Johnston County Sheriff's Office arrested 48 illegal aliens in an investigation targeting unauthorized contract workers at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

The ICE led investigation revealed that the workers had been hired by independent contractors who, in turn, provided them to Parsons Evergreen and the Air Force Base. The workers allegedly used counterfeit identity documents to gain employment with the contract companies, and ultimately gain access to the Air Force Base. Parsons Evergreen is not a target of this investigation at this time, according to federal officials.

"When individuals use false documents to hide their identity, the security and safety of our country is at risk," said Tom O'Connell the ICE resident agent-in-charge in Raleigh. "ICE and its law enforcement partners will continue to identify, arrest and deport those who break our laws and hide among us."

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said the arrests undermine OSHA's efforts to reduce injury and fatality rates among undocumented workers. "It's unconscionable that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would lure immigrant workers in North Carolina into arrest by using a phony OSHA meeting," she said.

ICE would not reveal the details of the operation, but a contractor who employed some of the workers faxed a copy to the North Carolina Department of Labor of a flyer that was used to lure the workers to the "meeting." The flyer, written in English and Spanish, told workers to attend a mandatory health and safety meeting and promised coffee and doughnuts.

"Workers need to be able to rely on OSHA for their safety on the job and often their lives without fear of repercussion. For immigration officials to undermine that trust in the name of an "undercover" raid is fundamentally wrong," said Chavez-Thompson. "It is OSHA's policy to keep the identity of those who file complaints confidential and not to collect data concerning citizenship status." The reason for these policies is simple, she added: If workers believe that they or their families are at risk of being deported, they will not speak out about dangerous or unhealthy conditions. "ICE's actions not only undermine OSHA's mission, but they also seriously erode the trust between agencies charged with protecting workers and the immigrant community," said Chavez-Thompson.

Latino and immigrant workers are among those facing the greatest risks of injury and death on the job. According to the latest U.S. government data, on average, 15 workers were fatally injured and more than 12,000 workers were injured or made ill each day on their jobs in 2003. Of the 5,559 workers killed by job injuries in 2003, nearly 900 were immigrant workers.

Of the situation in North Carolina, Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project noted, "This is the worst kind of deception at a time when we know a Mexican worker dies on the job every day of the year in the United States. I don't understand how arresting a few immigrants was so important they would want to risk all workers' lives."

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