Official says MDOT doesn’t check its citizenship of workers

Published 10:24 pm Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Mississippi Department of Transportation officially says it requires all contractors to follow federal immigration laws, but the recent arrests of dozens of undocumented workers on the coast and the words of a top-ranking MDOT official suggest otherwise.

On one side of the immigration debate, some blame the federal government for being far too soft on companies that seem to mock the law by hiring illegal immigrants.

The Senate immigration bill, aimed at tightening border security and cracking down on companies that hire illegal immigrants, suffered a crushing defeat last month and most observers believe it’s unlikely to be revived until after the 2008 federal election.

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Meantime, some companies that hire illegal immigrants could be sending their workers to south Mississippi to earn a slice of more than $1 billion in government money through MDOT.

In the coming months MDOT will spend more than $1 billion on construction projects in south Mississippi, including two U.S. 90 bridges. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall told the Sun Herald the agency does very little to verify the citizenship of those hired to do the work.

“We don’t check for Social Security numbers. We don’t check citizenship. We don’t check for anything because we’re not required to,” Hall said.

For many U.S. companies, the search for local labor is often long and expensive. Over time, they have found it much easier to hire ready and willing undocumented immigrants.

Despite what Hall told the newspaper, an MDOT spokeswoman issued what the agency called a “blanket” response to several Sun Herald questions, including whether illegal immigrants had ever been hired to work on state projects and what MDOT does to verify employment eligibility.

MDOT’s blanket statement said: “The Mississippi Department of Transportation requires that all contractors and subcontractors shall observe and comply with all applicable federal, state, and local laws in the hiring of employees.”

However, following a five-month investigation in March, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 77 illegal immigrants, many of whom were working on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge for Tarrassco Steel, a Greenville-based company owned by Jose Gonzalez and contracted on the MDOT project.

Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown, who oversees the state’s lower 27 counties, stuck to MDOT’s blanket statement, but hardly disagreed with Hall’s assertion that the agency does little to verify employment eligibility of contract workers.

“I would not disagree with (Hall’s) statement, I just don’t know,” Brown said. “Immigration is a huge debate right now, and I don’t like the fact that people enter this country illegally, but I do like that some people are coming here to work, and work hard, with legal work visas.”

Dozens of U.S. communities depend heavily on an undocumented work force, but at the same time some people in those communities detest the presence of illegal immigrants.

With two main transit connectors washed away by Hurricane Katrina, south Mississippians have longed for new bridges over Biloxi Bay and the Bay of St. Louis. Many locals don’t care who works on the bridges as long as the structures are completed on time and are safe to drive on.

According to a written release from ICE on the March roundup, the probe was a Critical Infrastructure Protection investigation, which “are generally predicated on the threat to national security posed by unauthorized workers employed in critical infrastructure-related facilities.”

To cross the border legally, immigrants must sometimes pay expensive fees and pass through a gauntlet of paperwork and interviews, with no real guarantee of getting a work visa. To cross illegally, they often live in constant fear of raids that would land them in jail and bankrupt their families.

Once across the border, most of the jobs waiting for them are in the construction industry, which has led the nation for years in the number of workplace fatalities. More than 1,180 workers died in 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but a well-paying U.S. job seems worth it to many poor men in Mexico.

Delfino Beltran, a 40-year-old bridge builder, was killed last month when a steel rebar support column failed during construction of the Bay St. Louis bridge. Beltran’s body was sent back to family in Mexico. On the coast, three of the last six workplace deaths since 2006 were Mexican men, according to Sun Herald archives and the Harrison County coroner’s office.

Miguel Hidalgo-Soberano, 48, of Cardenas Tabasco, Mexico, drowned inside an overturned Grand Casino barge in March. Six weeks later, Eleazar Casiano, 20, died when a trench collapsed on Klein Road in Gulfport. His body was sent home to family in Acapulco.

Beltran was working for Granite Archer Western, the joint-venture company awarded the $266.8 million bridge-construction contract by MDOT. It’s unknown whether Beltran was here illegally.

Dan Galvin, a spokesman for Granite Archer Western in Watsonville, Calif., said the company made it clear in its “help wanted” ads that employment eligibility would be checked.

“We were really hurting for a work force and we cast a wide net, advertising in newspapers throughout the United States,” Galvin said. “We specified in those ads that you had to be legal to work in the U.S. and we would check your documents, and we did so.”

Vicki Cintra, an outreach worker for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, said Granite Archer Western was at least one company on the Bay bridge that aimed to follow federal immigration laws.

“The company was scrutinizing paperwork quite a bit to the point that they were using a database that was actually kicking back somebody that was legally present,” Cintra said. “I know that particular company was doing its best to hire (documented workers).”

The company has hired several subcontractors, which have likely hired their own subcontractors that may have hired other subcontractors, and as for who is responsible for verifying the status of everyone wearing a hardhat and working on the bridge, Galvin said, “I’m not sure how we handled the subs or who checked their eligibility.”