Feb. 22, 2006 – Despite criticism that a ploy to catch undocumented immigrants on worksites undermines employee safety, US immigration authorities are refusing to end a controversial program in which agents pretend to be workplace-safety trainers in order to lure in undocumented immigrants and arrest them.
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In comments to the Bureau of National Affairs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Dean Boyd said the agency has to, at the very least, reserve the right to impersonate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) trainers in case of an "extreme incident."
Boydâ€™s comments come as workersâ€™ rights advocates continue pushing for an official end to ICEâ€™s practice of hosting fake workplace-safety training sessions in order to trap undocumented workers. In recent interviews, Boyd and other ICE officials have refused to renounce the practice, though Boyd told BNA that the agency will, in most cases, seek OSHA cooperation before undertaking such operations in the future. Boyd asserted that "as a general tactic" ICE "will not use ruses that are not coordinated with OSHA or ruses using health-and-safety meetings as tactic." But he did not rule them completely out.
According to an Inside OSHA article earlier this month, ICE officials told labor and immigrant advocates at a closed meeting at the end of January that they may expand use of the program â€“ comments in direct conflict with Boydâ€™s recent statement.
As previously reported by The NewStandard, labor unions, worker-safety associations and other groups have been highly critical of the ICE sting operation conducted last summer, in which 48 undocumented workers were rounded up at a North Carolina Air Force Base after showing up for a fake OSHA training session. The workers had responded to flyers calling for a mandatory state OSHA meeting.
According to state OSHA officials, ICE never sought their cooperation or approval to set up the fake meeting. Arguing that fear of future busts might deter attendance at real safety meetings, State OSHA head Allen McNeely immediately assailed ICE for putting workers at danger â€“ especially immigrant workers who, he said, are most at risk for job-related injuries.
Workplace-safety experts maintain that employee training is the single most important tool in assuring that workers avoid job-related injuries and death. By potentially frightening away immigrant workers from such programs, they say, ICE actions could endanger both immigrants and their fellow workers.
Federal labor and OSHA officials also criticized ICE over the action. "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," US Department of Labor spokesperson Pamela Groover told Occupational Hazards Magazine shortly after the sting was revealed, "This is not something we were involved in, and we do not condone the use of OSHA's name in this type of activity."
Unions and safety groups have taken a public stance on the issue, applying a small but steady stream of pressure on the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, to end the practice.
A week after the ICE raid became public, Interfaith Worker Justice called on supporters to contact lawmakers and Homeland Security to express dissent with the ICE tactic. The United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions joined in the call and many issued statements condemning the practice.
Last week, the trade association American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) sent Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff a letter demanding that he step in and "make sure the impersonation of OSHA personnel ends."
In a similar letter last August, the American Public Health Association (APHA) told Chertoff that the practice has the "serious potential to damage national efforts to prevent workplace illness and injury" and demanded its immediate cessation. APHA is a 125-year-old organization comprised of health practitioners and policy experts.
"While we understand the challenges faced by ICE in accomplishing its mission during these troubled times, we believe this action was both inappropriate and counterproductive," APHA director Georges C. Benjamin wrote. "Immigrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, are at greater risk for occupational injury and fatality than their native-born counterparts."
In a report issued last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that Hispanic workersâ€™ job-related deaths jumped by 11 percent between 2003 and 2004. The increase in deaths marks a sharp spike in a long-running trend. According to a 2004 BLS report, immigrant workersâ€™ job-related fatalities have increased by over 43 percent since 1996.