Doctors said he needed to take a few weeks to heal.
So his wife, Tania Bueso, was surprised when he called her and said federal immigration agents were arresting him for deportation. The collapse had occurred just two days before.
The spectacular wreck had brought a circus of unwanted attention to New Orleans. Three workers had died, dozens of others were injured, and speculation was growing that the site, an $85 million development slated to become a Hard Rock hotel, had been a mess of dangerous working conditions. A federal investigation was moving quickly. Lawsuits against the developers were piling up. (William Kearney, a spokesman for 1031 Canal Development, the LLC behind the development, did not respond to requests for comment.)
But Palma’s arrest sent a secondary shock wave through New Orleans, where the Latino population has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Activists and lawyers said they think it has had a chilling effect, discouraging workers without permanent legal status from coming forward to cooperate with investigators and reminding more of the federal government’s power to deport them at any moment.
This is one of the unseen consequences of the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States — 8 million of whom are in the workforce. Not only do these arrests break apart families, like Palma’s, but they send a message that immigrants are not protected, even if they have witnessed misconduct at work, advocates say. And that means that people who would exploit them — on construction sites, in kitchens, on farms and in factories — are more empowered.
Palma’s lawyers think the timing of his arrest was suspicious. Their client had been fishing in a national wildlife refuge when Fish and Wildlife agents questioned him and called the Border Patrol. Palma had repeatedly reported safety issues at the construction site to supervisors and was always told to go back to work, his lawyers say.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Homero López Jr., a Tulane University law professor who is representing Palma. “It definitely looks like they’re targeting him."
They fear he could be deported as soon as Monday.
A troubled development
Palma began noticing issues at the Hard Rock site soon after he started working there over the summer, according to a complaint that he and another one of his lawyers, Mary Yanik, filed with the Labor Department.
Laser levelers he was using to install window framing showed that the building was not level. He was accustomed to seeing discrepancies of about 3/4 of an inch to 1 1/4 inches on jobs, but the Hard Rock site was off by about two inches — something he had never seen in 17 years of construction work, the complaint says.
Palma said that he notified a supervisor on the site about the issue on five occasions but that he was told to continue working.
Palma said that the day before the collapse, he noticed the floor moving, as if being shaken in an earthquake, while he was working on the 14th floor, and he shared his concerns with a group of co-workers. After the collapse, some of those workers approached him, telling him that he was right, according to the complaint. The group was within earshot of several supervisors, the complaint says.
Palma also had spoken to a reporter from Jambalaya News, a Spanish-language news outlet, shortly after the incident, telling her about his escape. The interviewer noted that Palma was Honduran.
A harsh turn
Federal authorities have for years prioritized immigrants with criminal records for deportation, but recent data indicates that those without them, like Palma, make up an increasingly large portion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in the Trump era.
Still, ICE is not supposed to arrest workers who are involved in disputes that are being investigated by the Labor Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s parent agency, such as the Hard Rock collapse.
This agreement, worked out by the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department under the Obama administration, is meant to protect workers who have witnessed workplace misconduct, including around safety, discrimination, fair pay and union organizing.
The guideline includes exemptions, but they are limited: If ICE leadership determines an arrest is critical for national security, for example, or if a top official such as the labor secretary deems it necessary. Immigrants who are witnesses to or victims of crimes, including on job sites, are also eligible for special visas known as U visas.
These practices are meant to protect workers’ ability to expose misconduct and prevent employers from gaining undue power over employees without legal status.
But as immigration enforcement has taken a harsher turn in recent years, some immigrant advocates point to arrests they say indicate that agents are not only disregarding federal guidelines but also actively targeting those who get involved with work-related and political causes.
In Vermont, where Latino dairy workers have been organizing with the group Migrant Justice for better working conditions — minimum wage, at least one day off a week, and access to running water and electricity in their housing — workers and advocates say that ICE undertook a campaign of targeted harassment and retaliation against them.
Nineteen farmworkers involved with the group were detained or arrested in connection with alleged immigration violations between 2016 and 2018, according to a lawsuit filed by four of them — Jose Victor Garcia Diaz, Miguel Alcudia Gamas, Jose Enrique Balcazar Sanchez and Zully Palacios Rodriguez. Three say they were arrested by agents who knew about their activist work.
ICE told reporters at the time that it didn’t arrest or retaliate against people for advocacy or speaking out.
The arrests occurred around the time Migrant Justice was finding success — and drawing national media attention — for its Milk With Dignity campaign. Diaz, the only one of the plaintiffs with a criminal record, had been photographed for a New York Times article in 2015.
“It certainly had a real chilling effect on our membership,” said Will Lambek, an organizer at Migrant Justice. “We saw attendance at farmworker assemblies drop precipitously during each of the arrests and during that time period. It caused us to divert a lot of our time and resources away from fighting for our labor and rights.”
In Massachusetts, another Honduran construction worker, José Martin Paz Flores, was arrested by ICE after breaking his leg at work and attempting to file for workers’ compensation. His boss had told police, who then contacted ICE, according to a federal lawsuit the Department of Labor filed against the company, Tara Construction. The lawsuit is still active; lawyers for the construction company tried unsuccessfully to get the lawsuit dismissed. They have denied a large number of the DOL’s claims in legal filings.
John Sandweg, who was the acting director of ICE in 2013, said that the agency was supposed to tread carefully with cases like these. Palma should be released from detention and given a stay as the collapse is investigated, Sandweg said.
“This is why traffickers, domestic-violence abusers and gangs can prey on immigrant communities. If the perception is that ICE is going to arrest people based solely on immigration status, then it enables those groups,” Sandweg said. “If you’re not careful about it, even if you don’t intend to do it — you end up helping out guys who are breaking other laws."
Arrested while fishing
Bueso said her husband was disinvited from the workers’ meeting the Monday after the collapse, where issues around compensation were being discussed.
So that day, Palma went fishing instead.
While buying ice at a gas station on the way out to the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, he saw a man in a gray F-150 pickup truck, who also stopped to buy ice, according to the Labor Department complaint he filed.
Palma says the man followed him 10 miles down the road before he lost sight of him. When Palma arrived at the fishing hole, a man who looked similar and drove the same car approached him and asked if he had a fishing license. Palma said he showed the man a valid license but was then asked for his driver’s license. The man wrote him a ticket for fishing without a license, and a few minutes later Border Patrol agents showed up.
Bueso, who was on the phone with Palma during his arrest, said that Border Patrol agents knew he was a survivor of the collapse. She said she heard them say, “This is the [expletive] guy that is a survivor of the [expletive] Hard Rock building collapse."
Rhonda Lawson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that Fish and Wildlife agents called after finding that Palma was fishing without a license, and said he was unable to produce a valid driver’s license. Border Patrol agents found that he had an order of removal dating to 2016.
Palma’s immigration lawyer, López, said he questions why his client was arrested so suddenly. Palma had been fighting his removal order for years in court with little success, but had a formal check-in with ICE scheduled for mid-November that he planned to attend.
The complaint Palma filed with the Labor Department said that he fears his “employer instigated the immigration enforcement action.” It said he had two supervisors on the Hard Rock site: one from subcontractor King Co. and another person who was referred to as a supervisor, from Rey Co.
In a brief phone interview, Manuel Reyes, whom the complaint identified as another superior at Rey Co., said that Palma had worked for him off and on but was not employed by Rey on the site. Reyes said that Palma had not reported any issues to Rey employees.
"He never told Rey Co. what he’s saying,” Reyes said.
He said that no one from Rey Co. had communicated with immigration authorities about Palma.
“I don’t know why he was detained,” Reyes said.
King Co. representatives did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend. Jeff Geary, an executive at the firm, had previously declined to comment.
Lawyers in New Orleans said Palma’s arrest has intimidated others who want to come forward, potentially hampering the federal investigation of the collapse.
Palma was interviewed by OSHA at the Catahoula Correctional Center, a privately run jail that houses ICE detainees, but was unable to show the investigator pictures of the building site before the collapse, as the jail had custody of his phone, Yanik said.
Daryl Gray, who represents Palma and four other injured workers in a lawsuit against the contractors and developers, said that three workers told him they were reluctant to get involved in the case because of their legal status.
“We’ve had a couple of guys who said specifically they don’t want to take any action because they fear having the same repercussions as Mr. Palma,” Gray said. “I’ve had guys come in and say, ‘Can I do this anonymously? Can I do this off the record?’ ... These guys are completely terrified."
Bueso said that Palma gave her the names of 10 workers to persuade to cooperate with OSHA’s investigation. She has been able to reach six of them, and none have been willing to, she said.
“When I’ve called them, they’ve dodged, and said, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ ” she said. “There’s a sense that they’re not feeling safe."
López said that one of his clients, who was being harassed by a neighbor, told López that he was afraid to report the incident to police after hearing about Palma’s arrest.
Palma’s lawyers have wondered whether the interview with Jambalaya News played a role.
Palma was recently moved to a staging facility in Alexandria, La. — a sign that his deportation is imminent, his lawyers say.
“We are extremely concerned that he reported health and safety violations to his employer and was told to keep working,” Yanik said.
CBP and ICE declined through spokespeople to answer questions about whether they knew Palma was involved in the building collapse before his arrest.
Both agencies declined to comment about the allegation that Palma’s employers retaliated against him. Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a request for comment; it previously referred an inquiry to CBP.
Bueso, who is now taking care of their three children — daughters Yessica, 16, and Kelin, 14, and son, Anthony, 10 — on her own, said she is deeply concerned about her husband’s health. She and his lawyers said that he has been in intense pain from an eye tumor from chemical and dust exposure on another worksite and had been scheduled to have surgery on Nov. 6.
But the appointment came and went with Palma in jail.
“Being in detention, he is faced with an extreme decision between his health and well-being, and participating in this investigation,” she said. “His medical condition is so bad he’s considering giving in and being deported.”
Bryan D. Cox, ICE’s acting press secretary, said he was unable to comment on the care given to detainees without their consent but said that “all persons in ICE custody receive comprehensive medical care.”
“Allegations being spread about this situation are not correct and are just the latest example of falsehoods told about this agency that irresponsibly spread fear through misinformation,” Cox said.
Bueso said she still wasn’t able to fully process the trauma of the past month, with the building collapse and then her husband’s arrest.
“Our plan was to rest and recuperate together as a family,” she said. “And now we’re in another crisis.”