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
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
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
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
"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
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