Italian workers lose visas after WFAA investigation

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by BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV

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wfaa.com

Posted on February 5, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Updated Saturday, Feb 6 at 8:03 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS — The new Calatrava-designed bridge over the Trinity River in Dallas is made of steel fabricated in Italy by the Italian firm Cimolai. Eleven Italian steelworkers were given B-1 visas to come to Dallas and assemble the structure -- a two-year, 70,000 man-hour job -- after Cimolai argued that the Italians had special welding skills with the steel. 

Construction is specifically prohibited under the provisions of the B-1 visa, but Cimolai maintained the workers would not be building the bridge but rather "installing equipment."

A News 8 investigation asked whether the Italians had unique skills American welders don't have, and if Italian steel is different than American steel.

Texas construction unions said the premise was a travesty, an excuse to use cheaper labor, and a circumvention of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that construction using taxpayer monies utilize American labor. 

"Companies use the cheapest labor they can get," said Michael Cunningham of the Texas AFL-CIO. "These guys are welders just like our welders in this state. And there's a lot of unemployment in this state, and our guys could be doing this work, too."

After the News 8 story aired last November, the Texas Department of Transportation -- the "customer" for the bridge --  requested an investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

When seven of the eleven workers returned to Italy for Christmas, their visas were revoked by the U.S. Department of State.  Four Italians remain in Dallas.

A letter written by an immigration lawyer working for Cimolai argues that the State Department violated procedure in not permitting the Italians to re-enter the U.S., and that they should be re-instated. 

In the letter -- addressed "Dear Interested Parties" --  attorney Angelo Paparelli calls for Texas senators and congressional representatives to intervene to get the visas back. But the letter also reveals some new facts in the case.

Not all of the workers are employed by Cimolai, which manufactures the unique steel. Some are simply employees of an Italian steel assembly firm. Additionally, not all the workers are from Italy, with special Italian skills;  some are from Slovakia.

There is at least one more Calatrava-designed bridge slated for construction over the Trinity River. Texas workers say they hope that contract will be handled differently.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

 

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