Editor's Notebook: Giving ICE the Cold Shoulder

In recent years, OSHA has made no secret of the fact it is targeting immigrant workers ... for occupational safety and health training and support, that is.

In fact, President George W. Bush's proposed FY 2007 budget calls for an increase of $2.6 million in OSHA's compliance assistance budget to expand Hispanic worker outreach.

So, when a flyer written in Spanish and English appeared at workplaces in North Carolina last July that encouraged workers to attend a "mandatory" OSHA safety and health training session and offered free coffee and donuts, many workers showed up. The "meeting" turned out to be part of a sting operation set up by agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Dozens of undocumented immigrant workers were arrested.

The outcry from workers' rights groups was immediate, and the U.S. Department of Labor was vexed: "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.

When asked about the sting during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff admitted, "I think that was a bad idea, and I've directed that we not do it again."

The American Industrial Hygiene Association on Feb. 16 sent a letter to Chertoff, complaining, "Actions like this by ICE only serve to undermine OSHA's efforts to reach out and address the serious health and safety problems that immigrant workers face in their workplaces."

On Feb. 14, Jack H. Dobson Jr., CSP, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, sent Chertoff a letter indicating his group supports the responsible enforcement of immigration laws, but called the ICE sting "an egregious usurpation of another federal agency's good name and positive contributions to occupational safety and health."

When contacted by Occupational Hazards, ICE spokesperson Dean Boyd said, " ... [T]he uncoordinated use of an OSHA meeting as a ruse in July was a mistake. It shouldn't have been done. The agency didn't coordinate with OSHA or gain permission."

The devil is in the details, and in the word "uncoordinated." While ICE didn't anticipate using such a ruse again "with any regularity," Boyd went on to say the agency might use it in the case of a terrorist working in a facility, when, for example, "the only way to lure that person to a location where he or she could be safely arrested were such a ruse."

ICE isn't sorry it used the ruse and it will use it again. Next time, however, it will seek permission from the Department of Labor and OSHA.

Here's my advice to OSHA: Don't give permission. It is wrong of ICE to masquerade as OSHA officers, offering help and training to workers who desperately want and need it. It undermines the authority of OSHA and, in my opinion, doesn't say much for the value system of the person who came up with the idea or the agency that supports such subterfuge under the guise of promoting homeland security.

Most of the terrorists both homegrown and imported who have surfaced in this country were well-funded and managed to gain access to everything they needed, without posing as landscapers and groundskeepers, hotel staff, restaurant workers, construction workers, factory workers or migrant workers to do it.

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