Official says MDOT doesn't check citizenship of its workers - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Official says MDOT doesn't check citizenship of its workers

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.

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)."

But 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."

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Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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